Asia Durr propels Louisville women to new level

Just a couple of days ago, Coach Jeff Walz was indicating that Asia Durr was likely to miss the rest of the season, citing her slow recuperation from a groin operation this past summer.

“She just hasn’t had the success trying to come back that she was hoping for,” Walz said. “It’s really limited her ability to have any kind of explosion, any kind of foot speed. It’s really affected her as much physically as mentally.”

Asia Durr makes everybody better.
Asia Durr makes everybody better.

My, how things can change in a couple of days for young athletes.

Durr was one of the first players off the bench Thursday, looking like her old self, leading the University of Louisville women’s basketball team to an impressive 85-78 win over Michigan State. Played 23 minutes, including the crucial ones at the end, holding off the inevitable MSU rally.

Looking every bit like the Asia Durr regarded by many as the No. 1 recruit in her class, she brought with a new level of confidence to the UofL offense heretofore unseen this season. Connecting on five of 11 field goal attempts and five of seven free throws for 20 points. She was also dishing out a couple of assists and copping three steals.

Following the game, Walz had no explanation for the quick turnaround in Durr’s physical outlook, happily proclaiming, “Asia Durr makes us a different team.” Nothing like the team that was 1-4 arriving at East Lansing.

Her presence on the court setting a different tone, inspiring her teammates, making everybody look better, like the team UofL fans expected to see this season.  Courtnee Walton, becoming a scorer, hitting key shots down the stretch, 12 points for the night. Mariya Moore and Briahanna Jackson combining for five 3-pointers, scoring 20 and 13 points, respectively. Turning the Spartans over 27 times.

A different team with Asia Durr, indeed.

Louisville ahead of schedule, but Michigan State is better

Eerily similar to the back and forth between the Louisville and Michigan State basketball teams in the NCAA regional final last season, the Spartans prevailing again, this time 71-67 in Lansing.

Michigan State, remember, outlasted UofL 76-70 in overtime in March, denying the Cardinals what would have been a surprising return to the Final Four.

Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino

Making this team competitive was supposed to consume most of the season but UofL is ahead of schedule, already a force to be reckoned in early December. The Cardinals will get better, it’s inevitable, all Rick Piitno teams do as the season continues.

Pitino piecing together another team almost from scratch to take this year’s third-ranked MSU to the wire again. More testament to his Hall of Fame coaching abilities. Adding Damion Lee and Trey Lewis for scoring punch, squeezing some muscle and hustle from his assortment of awkward big guys, refusing to concede anything to anybody.

Count on freshmen like Donovan Mitchell to learn not to foul the other team’s leading free throw shooter in the final minute, UofL conceding six of six free throws to him in the final minute. Better to deny him the ball.

Expect Anas Mahmoud, if he’s still playing that late in the game, to stay in the face of three-point shooters like Bryan Forbes, he who was connecting on five of nine tries beyond the arc. Better still, watch for players like Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding to be there instead applying the defense. Where was Spalding in this one, playing only six minutes? The injured Adel was unavailable.

Lee and Lewis will never be bashful when it comes to shooting, thriving on their time in the national spotlight, collecting 23 and 21 points, respectively. Donovan Mitchell will inevitably contribute more than his latest production of six points — if his defense earns him more playing time. Same for Spalding but he, too, had best get with it on defense. Sooner the better.

The big guys, Chinanu Onuaku, Mangok Mathiang, Mahmoud, even Matz Stockman, well, at least one or two of them have to get better. They have already but there wasn’t much evidence in this game. Small steps forward for the guys in the big shoes could make a major difference.

This UofL team is already further along than anyone thought it would be, having significantly raised expectations. This early test against Michigan State provides a blueprint for more dramatic progress in the weeks and months ahead. A good team will only get better, Pitino will see to that.

Louisville and Michigan State set in ACC-Big 10 challenge

The University of Louisville basketball team will get a shot at Michigan State early during the 2015-16 season but this time should have a lot more firing power.

The Cardinals, remember, made only six shots during the final 25 minutes of the NCAA Regional this past season, losing 76-70 to the Spartans in overtime. Five of 15 shots in the second half, one of seven in overtime.

Rick Pitino will be returning with some shooters this time around, having picked up Trey Lewis with a 16.3 scoring average from Cleveland State and Damion Lee with a 16.5 scoring clip from Drexel. Expect freshman Donovan Mitchell, from New Hampshire, to become an immediate scoring threat as well.

Hopefully Pitino will also have a deeper bench, developing it sooner, with more playing time for everybody, something that never happened last season.

The UofL-Michigan State game is part of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. The schedule:

Monday, Nov. 30
• Clemson at Minnesota
• Wake Forest at Rutgers

Tuesday, Dec. 1
• Maryland at North Carolina
• Virginia at Ohio State
• Michigan at NC State
• Purdue at Pittsburgh
• Northwestern at Virginia Tech
• Miami (Fla.) at Nebraska

Wednesday, Dec. 2
• Indiana at Duke
• Louisville at Michigan State
• Notre Dame at Illinois
• Wisconsin at Syracuse
• Florida State at Iowa
• Penn State at Boston College

No lost causes as Pitino preps for Seattle

Off to Seattle, No. 4 seed in the East Region.

Not a bad place to be for the University of Louisville basketball team. Still lots of respect from the NCAA Selection Committee, despite the departure of Chris Jones, five losses in the last 10 game and the first-game out in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Rick Pitino focused on 20th NCAA trip.
Rick Pitino focused on 20th NCAA trip.

The committee members had to be impressed by an overall record of 24-8 and a conference mark of 12-6 in the ACC that included recent wins over North Carolina and Virginia. One wouldn’t be surprised either if dozens of Montrezl Harrell’s monstrous dunks  on Sportscenter over the past three seasons hadn’t made a lasting impression on them.

“Louisville is a strong team without Chris Jones and they’ll still be a strong team,” said selection committee chairman Scott Barnes. “No bad losses there. We tracked that. We talked quite a bit about it.”

The committee also had to consider the presence of Rick Pitino on the sidelines as a major positive. His 51-17 won-lost record in the NCAA tournament speaks volumes about his post-season coaching abilities.

Winning the East Region is not mission impossible, consisting of Villanova, Virginia, North Carolina State, Oklahoma, Providence, Northern Iowa, Michigan State, LSU, Georgia, Boise State, Wyoming, U.C. Irvine, Albany, Belmont and Albany.

Pitino is back in full Pitino mode, seeming to imply that the loss to North Carolina may have been a blessing, providing UofL with more time to correct its deficiencies. He’s been holding two-a-day practice sessions since returning to Louisville. He indication that one session lasted three-and-a-half hours.

And he’s happy to be going to Seattle because it should be free of distractions from “families and friends.”

The UofL coach told ESPN radio Saturday, “Our only weakness right now (is) challenged shots … This year we’re shooting 8 percent. We have to stay away from that challenged shot.” Later in the day he was bemoaning the lack of offensive rebounding and shot blocking from Chinanu Onuaku. Tomorrow, he may actually deal with the question of not effectively attacking zone defenses.

Pitino is not giving up on this team despite some obvious weaknesses. He been through the wars so many times, with so much success, there’s no such thing as a lost cause. He’s confident in his abilities. Now he believes all has to do is convince his team of theirs.


Charlie Strong on USA Today’s short list for Texas

Mack Brown did what he said wasn’t going to do and tendered his resignation at the University of Texas over the weekend, probably setting in motion a wave of coaching changes at some winning programs.

Apparently Nick Saban, of Alabama, had apparently turned Texas down before any official offer could be tendered, one happy camper with the program he restored at Alabama. The speculators emerged full force shortly afterwards with their short lists of possible candidates to succeed Brown

Among the speculators is Paul Myerberg, a sportswriter at USA Today, ranking the candidates for the job in order from first to fifth. His list included Mike Grundy, Oklahoma State; Jimbo Fisher, Florida State; Gus Malzone, Auburn; Mark Dantonio, Michigan State; and Charlie Strong of Louisville.

Here’s what Myerberg says about Strong:

Strong is another accomplished coach with a sizable buyout: UT would owe Louisville $5 million if it hired Strong in 2013 – and $4.375 million if the school waited until 2014, in case you were wondering. Beyond the money, Texas would also have to convince Strong to leave a very comfortable and successful position at Louisville, which leaves the American Athletic Conference to join the ACC after this season.

But what makes Strong an appealing candidate? He has big-school experience – as at Florida, where he helped win a pair of national titles. He has 11 wins in each of the last two seasons at Louisville, including a Sugar Bowl win against the Gators last January. Strong would have an enormous impact on the Longhorns’ defensive production, obviously. UT would want to hear his thoughts on an offensive staff before advancing past a preliminary stage, but Strong is a logical second-tier candidate for the opening.

We doubt Strong would be interested in the quagmire that is Texas. Longhorn fans are over the top when it comes to national aspirations and they have little patience. Lose two or three games and they’re already looking for a new coach.

Doubtful he would go to Florida State. He would be coaching right away against the players he recruited at Louisville and we don’t believe he would enjoy doing that. Besides any coaching candidate in his right mind wouldn’t want to follow in the footsteps of Jimbo Fisher who’s practically a legend in the minds of the school’s fans.

Auburn, based on its history, may have already attempted to schedule a secret meeting at a Southern Indiana airport. Charlie wouldn’t have agreed to participate in a clandestine activity.

Michigan State has gone the Louisville route before and it didn’t work out very well for the Spartans.

Oklahoma State is still in Oklahoma.