Auriemma And Walz? Wiseguys, But Good Fellows

UConn, Louisville Coaches Appreciate Each Other

NEW ORLEANS —

 He didn't want to talk about equaling Tennessee's eight national championships. He didn't want to talk about catching Pat Summitt, or John Wooden and taking that long, forever arm-and-arm walk with history.

Not yet anyway. Not with one more game to play.

"Talking about things that haven't happened yet," Geno Auriemma said on the eve of the NCAA women's national championship against Louisville, "is never a good idea."

What UConn's Hall of Fame coach did want to talk about Monday was the Mad Scientist of women's basketball. And in turn, Jeff Walz took a moment from his Bunsen burner to announce a career change on Geno's dime.

"Jeff always has got something up his sleeve," Auriemma said. "The first time we played them he had his team line up and go the wrong way coming out of halftime so we would shoot at the wrong basket. Who does that in a college game? That's something you do in CYO, right?

"Well, all my Phi Beta Kappas, they all went with him. Luckily the ref went, 'Whoa, whoa,' you're supposed to go the other way. He was so pissed because he had us and the ref stopped it."

At this point, Auriemma had everybody at his media conference laughing. And that's the moment when Auriemma loves to turn serious.

"You look around the country and who has done a better job than him?" Auriemma said. "I don't think there's another coach in America that's accomplished as much as he has from where they started in the last six years than he has."

Walz, who took Angel McCoughtry to the national finals in 2009, took down Baylor this spring when everybody thought Brittney Griner was invincible. He got to the NCAA title game with a 5 seed for the first time in tournament history. He is similar to Auriemma in a number of ways and that's why Ohio State is chasing him to fill Jim Foster's job. Similar to Auriemma, of course, except for his choice in his game attire.

Even one of his players, Sheronne Vails, conceded Walz coached the Final Four victory over California in a red-checkered shirt that looked like a picnic cloth. On Sunday night Auriemma and Walz met in the New Orleans Arena hallway and he bowed and pretended to kiss Walz's hand. That didn't stop Auriemma from later mocking his shirt.

Walz returned the favor Monday with his own version of Hail! Caesar! Hail! Caesar salad!

"This will be the last game that I coach here," Walz announced. "As a women's basketball coach, you go through times where you're always wondering what are you going to do when you're finished. I've been to three national championship games [one as an assistant for Maryland and two as Louisville coach].

"Now that I've got the opportunity to be a waiter in Geno's restaurant, I don't know what the hell else somebody wants in life. My goal is to become the head waiter. Not just one that sits in the back. I want to be the best damn one he's got."

Auriemma's response?

"He doesn't dress well enough to work in the front room of my restaurant. He'll be busing dishes and taking out the trash in the back until he fixes his attitude."

Walz will keep his day job.

"I think I'm pretty sarcastic at times and I like to give it back to him as well," Walz said. "It's all in good fun. When it comes to competing on the basketball floor, I've always respected what he's done. I've always respected how he does things. I've always respected him because he's honest and blunt. He says what the rest of us think.

"What impresses me so much about what he's done is he takes really good players and gets them all to play hard and buy into his system. He continues to get leaders and he develops them. I love the guy."

Walz can be forgiven if he doesn't love him too much. After all, he is 0-9 against UConn since taking over at Louisville in 2007. Or as Walz says, "I think I'm 0 and 64" Louisville's victory over Baylor might have been the most stunning upset in the history of the game and the legend would go off the charts if Louisville shocked UConn Tuesday night to complete a championship run. But, hey, it's not happening. Baylor had the best player. Baylor had two of the 10 best players in the nation. UConn has, oh, seven elite players. Louisville can't account for them all.

Sorry, to ruin the fairy tale.

"Our kids are confident," Walz said. "We believe in what we're doing. No one thought we could beat Baylor. No one thought we'd come back a day after that and beat Tennessee … I got a pretty good feeling they aren't picking us against UConn.

"I told our kids — I'm honest with them — if we had to play Baylor in a best of seven, I don't think we're going to win that series. We don't have to. We have to play 40 minutes of pretty much perfect basketball, which I think we can."

That all sounded good to Auriemma.

"There's no pressure on us," Walz said. "The pressure is all on them because they're going to be a heavy favorite to win."

That didn't sound as good to Auriemma.

"I love playing against teams who say 'we have nothing to lose,' because we usually beat them by 50," Auriemma said. "Nothing to lose? Really? You got the national championship at stake."

Auriemma said Walz must be a genius, because when he watches Louisville on film Antonita Slaughter is always open for threes. He said he wants the secret, so he can get Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis open all the time. Having lost by 14 to UConn in a Big East game in which Breanna Stewart didn't play because of injury, the Mad Scientist insists there is no secret strategy for UConn.

"We both know what the other does, we're not going to be able to junk it up," Walz said. "Everybody talks about how we guarded Brittney Griner. They scored 81 points, their average. We just figured out a way to score 82.

"We weren't going to shut Baylor down. And we're not going to shut UConn down. It's about impossible. If we have a chance to win, it's not going to be a 60-55 game. It's got to be 84-83. We might have to try and get into the 90s. We're going to shoot threes. He knows that. It's not a secret. They're going to be out pressuring us too. I've got a feeling they'll probably find Antonita."

Walz is buddies with Louisville men's coach Rick Pitino. They have been texting each other through the school's terrific run, one reminiscent of UConn's in 2004. Pitino told him he will try to get to New Orleans. Of course, there was the matter of the men's national championship in Atlanta. The Louisville women watched the victory over Wichita State Saturday night at the Crazy Lobster restaurant. On Monday night, they watched the game in the Sheraton lobby. How are Pitino and Geno alike?

"They both win a lot. They're both great. They're both great to me."

"I see a lot of myself in Jeff," Auriemma said. "Being an assistant in a great program [Auriemma was at Virginia], getting your first opportunity to be head coach. I did it when no one was paying attention. He's doing it in a much bigger arena."

It not hard to see Walz is a wiseguy, too.

"I'm hoping she misses the bus," he said when asked about Stewart. "I sat next to Jim Boeheim at the Olympics and we're talking during the gold medal game. He was like, wow, there's this kid that plays open gym with our women at Syracuse, she's going to UConn. She's one of the best players I've ever seen. I'm like, yeah, I know.

Walz started counting Stewart and the slew of young UConn players. He knows UConn could run off three in a row to give Geno 10 titles and tie Wooden's men's record. The Mad Scientist just hasn't figured out a way to stop him.

"I don't see how that's going to change unless he decides to retire, which I think he should. I'm all for it."

Yeah, there's plenty of Geno in Walz.

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