The University of Louisville women are flipping the basketball around — passing and cutting, going one way as the ball goes another.
Like clockwork — only at about three-quarters speed.
It’s not in a game. It’s the team running through its offenses in a “shoot around” the day before an NCAA tournament game. So the passes aren’t zinged at speed. But they’re quick, and right on target. And there’s a rhythm to it. Plus sound.
Each of the NCAA teams get an hour on the court the day before it plays, to get a feel for the place. For Louisville, the court happens to be the Cardinals’ home at KFC Yum! Center, site of first and second round NCAA games. Louisville won its games and moves on to the Lexington Regional in Rupp Arena on Friday, March 23.
But the shoot-around routine is the same wherever teams travel in the nomadic three-week Odyssey of the NCAA tourney. Players check the springy-ness of the hardwood floor. Get a bead on the rims. Gauge the depth of distance behind the backboards. And hear what the place sounds like before fans fill it up.
It’s an ancient ritual, practiced forever by tournament teams from high schools to the pros. And a special day in college basketball, when reporters churn out stories derived from intentionally uncontroversial quotes. TV cameras zoom in on stars pretending they’re not posing. You want to look cool, but not cocky. Like the Big Team, now taking the court.
And on this day in Louisville, as the ball comes to Louisville star Asia Durr, teammate Jazmine Jones is singing out “Asia, Asia, Asia.”
Jones isn’t calling for Durr to pass her the ball. Or faking out opponents. There are no opponents present for this day-before drill.
It’s just basketball background sound from a veteran player on a play-together team.
Like “infield chatter” on a baseball diamond, as the infielders “talk” to their pitcher about … well, nothing, really: “Atta-baby, atta-boy … rock fire.”
Only Jones is chattering “Asia, Asia, Asia.” Then “Myisha, Myisha,” when the ball goes to Louisville’s Myisha Hines-Allen. And “A.C.,” when the circuitry of the exercise winds back to its start. Guard “A.C.” Arica Carter resets the offense, and Jones resets her chants.
The thing a bystander figures out fast is this is a team that is clearly clicking. Confident. Happy as a clam in its basketball skin. Louisville is 34-2, which the Cardinals have gotten to after a 20-game winning streak to begin the season, an Atlantic Coast Conference title, and two easy wins to begin the NCAA tourney.
Chemistry is key
Friday night in Lexington, Louisville faces West Coast power Stanford (24-10) at 9:30 p.m., following a 7 p.m. game between Oregon State (25-7) and Baylor (33-1). The winners meet Sunday in the regional championship.
All four Lexington Regional teams are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, with Baylor No. 2 and Louisville No. 3. So it’s a rough road to the Final Four, March 30 and April 1 in Columbus, Ohio.
But Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who has taken two Louisville teams to the NCAA final (both times losing to perennial champion Connecticut), isn’t shy about Louisville’s standing.
“We’re a ball club that when we come out and play hard and we play together, we’re really good,” Walz says.
Of course, the coach understands that at this level, his team can lose, as well as win. But he thinks his team has the “play together” part down pat. “Our chemistry,” says Walz, “is wonderful.”
‘Taking care of business’
The chemistry begins off court, the coach says. But it carries into playing together on court.
Especially in tight situations.
Such as the ACC tournament championship two weeks ago, when Notre Dame launched a serious late-game run.
“We’re up six or seven on Notre Dame with about four and half minutes to go, and they cut it to one — and I didn’t call a time out,” recalls Walz. “There was no need to call a time out. Our players know what to do. It was just a matter of executing, relaxing, taking care of business.
“We executed the offense,” the coach continues. “Sam (Louisville center Sam Fuehring) gets the ball reversed, and Myisha hits a little 15-foor jump shot.”
The passing game nearly always works wonders for Louisville.
“So now as the game gets under a minute, I’ve still got three time-outs to work with,” says Walz. “And I think that’s where we are right now with this group. Sure, I might have had to call a time-out here or there, but it’s not something I have to do to bail them out, where it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to stop this.’ They’re mature enough. They’ve got enough experience to know exactly what we have to do to stop momentum from the other team. It could be a defensive stop, or execute the offense at the other end.”
‘Our circle inside’
And it’s kind of cool, too, the way the players play together off the court.
You can see that in the way they answer press conference questions. How one player fields a question, then dishes to a teammate who completes the answer.
Most student athletes don’t arrive in college with that skill. Most plain old students don’t have it. It’s a seldom-noted benefit of playing big-time college sports — men’s or women’s — gaining communication skills in interviews. Thoughtful answers. Poise. Enunciation. It’s impressive.
Not just talking for the camera, but learning to pass the microphone almost as adeptly as passing a basketball.
“Being the No. 1 seed?” says Hines-Allen, pondering a reporter’s question. “We’re never going to get caught up in what our ranking is, just mainly stay focused on ourselves, because the rankings will take care of themselves.”
Carter takes the hand-off.
“We can’t think about the pressure of what everybody else thinks outside,” says the junior guard. “We can only focus on our people, our circle inside, and come out and play as hard as we can every game.”
Walz has another example of how Carter’s “circle inside,” plays out on the court. He’s thinking about star shooter Asia Durr, who is a finalist for collegiate player-of-the-year and a likely All-American. It could be different, but Durr fits perfectly into the fabric of the team.
“You know, as good as Asia is, she counts on her teammates to help her,” says Walz. “That night she had 47 up there at Ohio State, it’s not because it’s all one-on-one. It was within the offense. She had maybe three or four baskets where she just came down the floor and scored. (Bombs away!) The rest of them came out of the offense, kids setting great screens for her, her reading the screens. And then getting the ball to her at the right time.”
More passes for more players
Maybe the passing is the twine that binds.
Against Marquette, Louisville sees it has a size advantage. Walz inserts 6-4 sophomore Kylee Shook into the line-up — and adds 5-6 freshman Dana Evans. Almost instantly Evans is finding Shook on the way to the basket.
Shook and Evans, and 6-2 sophomore Bionca Dunham, are all likely starters of the future — now coming off the bench amid a flurry of passes that makes Louisville’s game more potent.
Later, the starters return, with Durr and Hines-Allen combining for 43 points to lead Louisville to a 90-72 victory over Marquette. In the first-round game, Louisville stopped Boise State 74-42.
But Walz delves deeper into the scorebook of the Marquette game to note that Jazmine Jones, a starter, has quietly hit six of nine shots, with seven assists. Moving the ball around, chanting as she works, perhaps, and taking her points when they come.
“Jazz has really had a great season for us,” says Walz. “With the departure of a few players, she had the opportunity to get a lot more playing time — and worked hard on taking advantage of that this summer.”
The coach praises Jones’ efficiency and rebounding skills. Plus, he says, “her pull-up jump shot is as good as anybody’s in college basketball.”
Maybe “Jaz-mine, Jaz-mine” should throw herself in with “Asia, Asia, Asia,” and call for the ball after all.
Cacophony behind closed doors
While Walz is talking with reporters in a conference room at UofL’s on-campus Yum! Center practice facility, it sounds like there’s a riot underway down the hall in the women’s practice gym.
Behind closed double doors, the Cardinals are, one surmises, warming up before Walz joins the team to begin practice. But it’s a real cacophony of sounds. Happy sounds. Sing-song chants and big yelps.
Infield chatter — with the volume turned up.
How a team on its way gets going.
Tickets for each session in Lexington are $30 at RuppArena.com, with maybe better seats available at the door.