The Floyd Street Tribune: On the clear example set by Louisville women's hoops
Inside: Why this Louisville women's hoops squad is so lovable, and what it has that Louisville men's hoops can emulate. Plus, assistants! Recruiting! NIL! Podcast!
Thanks for reading The Floyd Street Tribune! This one was written from the dark TFST HQ after serious winds knocked out of our power Wednesday night. But this is what we’re made for, newsletter typing on an iPhone hotspot! This newsletter is light in a dark world.
One Big Thought
Throughout Louisville’s late-game surge to beat Michigan and reach the Final Four, I found myself thinking about how much this Cards squad illustrates what fans so desperately want from that Cards squad.
The Hailey Van Lith “let’s go!” screams, her just-get-it-done mentality. Emily Engstler’s game-changing defense. Olivia Cochran’s back-to-back-to-back … -to-back-to-back big plays. The beautifully-designed, patiently-executed offensive set that ended with Engstler dropping a high-low dime to a wide-open Cochran for an easy layup that turned out to be the dagger.
This is no je ne sais quoi squad, no “I can’t quite put my finger on it” team. We know exactly what this team is. This team is intense, focused, driven, passionate, smart, savvy, swaggy and fun as hell. This team puts everything – every last drop – into its games. Did you see how exhausted Van Lith was in the handshake line?
This Louisville women’s basketball team embodies everything fans want the Louisville men’s basketball team squad to be, and this is where the hiring of Kenny Payne can come in handy.
Go back and listen to Julius Randle’s comments about Payne. Listen to Denny Crum’s comments about him on my podcast, Floyd Street’s Finest. Listen to Herald-Leader recruiting writer Ben Roberts on my pod, too. Read anything written about Payne. You will keep coming back to the same thing: Guys care about Payne because Payne cares about his guys. He connects with them on a level that many coaches cannot, not only because of his personality but because he has been in their exact shoes. He has an innate ability to motivate them to defend, to pursue rebounds, to play hard for him, to care a lot.
I don’t know a damn thing about what Kenny Payne’s offense will look like other than there will be five guys and a ball. I have a hunch about his defense – some variation of extended man-to-man with ball pressure out front and shot-blocking on the back end – but I can’t sit here and map out the exact details of his defensive scheme. No one can. All of that will come in due time.
What I do know, what I’m confident about, is that Louisville men’s basketball has an opportunity to reimagine itself and reenergize its fan base. Winning is the top-line goal. But winning in a way that gets you out of your seat, yelling “let’s go,” high-fiving people around you, wanting a win in your bones so bad you’ll be sick if you don’t get it – that is the meat on the bone.
And that’s why this Jeff Walz-coached Louisville women’s basketball squad is so fun to watch: They care more than you do.
Do you realize how focused and intense a team has to be to put that vibe off?
Think about it this way: If you read this newsletter, you’re probably a pretty big Louisville fan. You live and die with defensive possessions and runs and last-second shots. You want your team to be fun and you want your team to be good. But most of all, and this is my long-running theory about fan psychology in general, deep down you want your coaches and your players to care as much as you do, to live and die with those same defensive possessions and runs and last-second shots, to wake up every morning absolutely determined to work harder and prepare better than your opponents. This is why Louisville fans, for all his flaws, loved Rick Pitino — he cared a whole helluva lot more than anyone else.
A lot of teams – have you seen Pitt play the last seven years? – in no way put off the vibe that they care. They fold during big runs. They yell at each other. They complain a bunch. The coach throws players under the bus. You know what it looks like because it happens so often.
But the teams that crave victory, that crave dogged preparation, that crave big moments, that crave the next challenge — those teams win fans over during their magical runs. They make you so fired up you well up with tears or let out a guttural scream after a big play. They make you care even more, because that’s how much they care.
That is exactly what this Louisville women’s hoops team does. It’s so much fun to watch. And it’s the perfect example for the men’s team to follow as the program rejuvenates itself.
What I’m hearing on assistants
I keep coming back to two things I feel really confident in: Milt Wagner will have a spot on staff, and I expect Nolan Smith to be an assistant. Sources told me earlier this week that U of L, either interim AD Josh Heird or someone deputized by him, spoke at length with Wagner during the hiring process. I’ll put it this way: Top-ranked 2023 prospect DJ Wagner, Milt’s grandson, had a very good grasp of the hiring process that led to Payne. More on him in the recruiting section.