LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville having another highly-rated recruiting class appears normal at first glance for Jeff Walz.
The twist is that just one of the seven newcomers is a freshman, and the longtime Cardinals coach points out that his unusual deep dive into the transfer portal was more about need than a philosophical shift. With many top high school prospects already committed last fall, Walz worked the portal hard this spring with several veteran regulars on the cusp of leaving — only to have to fill a huge vacancy with the surprise departure of All-American guard Hailey Van Lith to defending national champion and top-ranked LSU.
Since transfers helped Louisville reach its fourth Final Four in 2022 and the Elite Eight last season, it was the logical choice to restock his roster. It has yielded seasoned talent.
“Instead of going after a kid that you think in two years should be ready to play, you just might say, ‘No, I’ll just wait for the portal and get a kid who has college experience, who’s already done it,’” Walz said of his rationale.
“They might not be at the (Power Five) level, but they may have been a mid-major player of the year or first team all-league. ... I’m not sure how many kids are out there right now that truly want to sit there and work for two years to really crack through that lineup and develop. Everybody wants to play right now.”
Walz now has a mix of Power Five and mid-major players, including several with the aforementioned accolades. Besides tempering the impact of Van Lith’s exit, the No. 17 Cardinals hope this group can make another deep NCAA Tournament run a year after reaching the Elite Eight.
They already have some hardware to show for it by winning the GLOBL Jam international competition in Toronto this summer, fittingly clinched by UMass transfer Sydney Taylor’s game-winning 3-pointer.
“It was just amazing, just seeing how we never had played before,” said graduate student guard Nina Rickards, who averaged a career-high 12.1 points per game at Florida last season. “We had a few practices but were able to click, and that off-the-court bonding really, really helps when you sacrifice for one another playing against your opponent. I think the team chemistry is there.”
Power Five experience is certainly there in the backcourt with Rickards, senior Eylia Love (Georgia Tech) and junior Jayda Curry, a two-time Pac-12 all-conference selection at Cal. Graduate Kiki Jefferson transferred from James Madison after earning Sun Belt Conference Tournament MVP honors; Taylor was an All-Atlantic 10 Conference first-teamer; and junior forward Hennie van Schaik earned All-Big West honorable mention.
Walz cautions that cohesion is a work in progress as the new faces blend with seniors Olivia Cochran (8.4 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) and Merissah Russell and sophomores Nyla Harris and Alexia Mobley for the grind.
Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks notes that the process is harder than people think.
“The transfer portal is not plug and play,” he told the ACC Network. “You can bring someone in that’s averaged 14 points a game somewhere else, but they have to learn your system and your style, what their new role (is), and everybody has to buy into that.”
Harris said the veterans must lead in helping their new teammates adapt to a bigger stage and different culture.
“We told them, ’we’re going to help you guys, we’re going to make sure we lead and help you guys learn all the plays, all the defensive things that we do,'” the sophomore added. “Here at Louisville, we are about defense.”
And while seven transfers including All-American forward Angel Reese helped carry LSU to its first national title last season, Walz doesn’t expect the portal to become his go-to for roster overhauls. The extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA during the pandemic will cycle out and the governing body has employed tighter standards for two-time transfers playing right away.
A smaller talent pool is expected, and Walz still believes the portal should supplement his roster as he continues recruiting freshmen.
“We’re always looking for top high school prospects, there’s no question about that,” he added. “I look at the portal as an avenue to fill any holes. So, after we have our freshman class committed, we look at who we have and let’s say, we didn’t get a 6-(foot)-1 wing. I’ll use the portal to look for a 6-1 wing.”
Louisville’s roster provides Walz plenty of potential options, and the object is filling the offensive void left by the exits of Van Lith (19.7 points) and teammates Chrislyn Carr, Morgan Jones and Liz Dixon. Not to mention, longtime defensive specialist Mykasa Robinson, who’s now a graduate assistant.
Creating offense through defense will be the Cardinals' initial focus, and points might have to come by committee when they open on Nov. 6 at Cincinnati. Cochran (6-3) figures to be the focal point and is ready for the responsibility eager to mesh with more new faces than usual.
“Change is good,” she said. “We’re all hungry. The newcomers, they want to know that feeling and I’m just happy to be here, be part of that and help them taste that feeling I’m trying to taste again as well.”
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