Louisville will head to the U.S. Virgin Islands to play in the 2019 Paradise Jam after opening up their season with five straight wins at home.
This is the first time the Cardinals have competed in the tournament since they were runners-up in 2003. With three tough games in as many days, Louisville stands to gain a lot from this upcoming weekend, both internally and nationally.
Led by 13-year head coach Jeff Walz, the Cardinals will have a chance to grab their first statement win of the season when they face Oregon on Nov. 30. Their bout with the Ducks will come after squaring off against undefeated Oklahoma State and UT Arlington on Nov. 28 and 29, respectively, in the tournament’s Island Division.
Both Oklahoma State and UTA sport impressive defenses, holding opponents to less than 53 points per game. They’ll look to stifle the Cardinals’ high-scoring offense and take advantage of Louisville’s turnover troubles. It will be the perfect opportunity for Walz to continue figuring out his team’s low-post offense and tinker with his rotations.
While the Cardinals won’t be overlooking their two opening bouts in the tourney, there’s no questioning which matchup gets top billing.
Saturday’s game against the Ducks could be a preview of things to come in early April if both teams follow through on their programs’ lofty expectations. Oregon needs little introduction. This year’s top-ranked team is coming off a 32-win season and a Final Four appearance, and already has the most impressive win of the season: a 93-86 exhibition victory over Team USA.
Louisville hasn’t had a real chance to cut its teeth against elite competition yet. Their opponents thus far have a combined 13-15 record, with only Boise State boasting an NCAA Tournament appearance last year. Oregon, on the other hand, took down previously-ranked number 17 Syracuse on the road Sunday and looks as deadly as ever.
For Louisville’s part, they’ve gotten the job done as expected, outscoring their opponents by more than 26 points per game. But lopsided 30-point victories early in the year don’t reveal much in the way of understanding what teams can achieve in the postseason. Louisville’s Paradise Jam trip will provide the first real jumping off point for evaluating the Cardinals.
It’s hard to say anybody really doubts Louisville’s status as an elite team. They came into the season ranked number nine in the preseason AP poll and have since jumped Maryland following the Terps’ loss to fifth-ranked South Carolina. Betting against Louisville, who hasn’t lost more than ten games since 2011, and has made nine-straight NCAA Tournament appearances, seems to be a losing proposition.
But some degree of uncertainty was bound to follow with the departure of electric guard Asia Durr. The two-time ACC Player of the Year led the Cardinals to the Elite Eight last season, averaging 21.2 points per game before being selected with the second pick in the 2019 WNBA draft.
Durr has defined Louisville basketball the past few years and this season marks a dramatic shift for the Cardinals, as evidenced by Walz’ experimentation thus far. In addition to losing two other top scorers in Arica Carter and Sam Fuehring, both of whom were also drafted into the WNBA, Louisville is relying on big contributions from new faces.
Elizabeth Balogun, Elizabeth Dixon and Norika Konno, all in their first year with the program, are averaging 19 minutes or more this year. Yacine Diop, who suffered a season-ending knee injury four games into last season after transferring from Pittsburgh, is averaging 15 minutes a game as well.
But working the new additions into the rotation hasn't tripped up the Cardinals yet. Balogun and Dixon, both transfers from Georgia Tech, have stepped in and played well. Konno has struggled with turnovers and shooting the ball, but a six-assist performance against Boise State was a positive step in the right direction for the freshman.
Walz has been adamant that there’s no exact replacement for Durr, but Junior Dana Evans has filled in well as the lead guard. Evans is the reigning ACC Sixth Player of the Year and is averaging 18.6 points and 2.8 assists. The Gary, Indiana native is the ideal floor spacer for Louisville’s improving inside game, and is shooting over 50% from deep on five attempts per game.
Cardinals stalwart Jazmine Jones has also helped fill the void left by Durr with career highs in nearly every counting stat. Add in the continuity of seniors Bianca Dunham and Kylee Shook, and Louisville is learning to reinvent itself while staying on track for a deep run in March and April.
The transition hasn’t been perfect, however. Louisville has gotten away with some slow starts this season that better teams will take advantage of. The establishment of the offensive hierarchy — which poor shooting hasn’t helped — is ongoing. But those are expected growing pains after the departure of a star player.
Whether or not those growing pains make a difference this weekend remains to be seen. With conference play only a month away, the Paradise Jam is Louisville's best chance to smooth out its kinks before beginning its title run.