The disciple and the mentor, with a Final Four bid on the line
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It may not feel like much time has passed since Jeff Walz, the Louisville head coach, was an assistant to Maryland’s Brenda Frese.
But as Frese, whose Terrapins are set to face Walz’s Cardinals with a ticket to the 2020 Final Four in New Orleans on the line, explained to High Post Hoops, it’s actually been a while. And accordingly, both their strategies have evolved as well.
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“Watching Louisville over the years, sometimes I see things that look like stuff we do or have done at Maryland,” Frese said. “Truthfully, though, it’s been since 2007 that Coach Walz was at Maryland. Over 13 years, things change, coaches evolve and we each go in our own direction. So at this point, I don’t think either of us has any real inside information.”
Still, the moment provides a personal touch to what will be a hard-fought game between two of the best teams in the country, either a reasonable pick to reach the Final Four.
Maryland, the top seed in the Fort Wayne region, got a dominant defensive performance from Blair Watson in their Sweet 16 win over Oregon State. Frese chuckled as she remembered Watson’s evolution into the stopper for this Terrapin team.
“It’s kind of funny, because we didn’t recruit Blair because of her defense,” Frese said. “In one of her last high school games in New Jersey, she had 48 points. Our fans have seen her offensive outbursts here at Maryland. She has one of the most effortless looking shots you’ll ever see. So she really fits that profile of the ‘three and D’ player that you hear about in the NBA. She has tremendous defensive instincts, she studies the scout and I think what constantly takes people by surprise is the quickness of her hands. I don’t know how you even measure that, but you see it over and over again. An opponent thinks they have the ball securely and in the blink of an eye, Blair has knocked it loose. She really picked up the new defensive scheme we installed this season and has helped her teammates learn it. Maybe the biggest thing I have to give Blair credit for is her selflessness. She has been a big time scorer for us, but she really embraced this defensive role. We don’t have this type of season without her impact on the defensive end.”
Watson’s likely defensive assignment will be Louisville’s elite guard Dana Evans, but Frese pointed out that the Cardinals have many ways to beat opponents.
“Louisville is a well-balanced team,” Frese said. “They’re good offensively and defensively. They have talented players that can score the ball on all three levels. They beat Oregon, who might be the best team in the country. So on the right day, Louisville is a really dangerous team. Evans is very confident on offense. Jones has come into her own as a senior. [Kylie] Shook gives them a big that can step out and stretch the defense. One constant with Louisville teams is that they will play aggressively and you know you’re going to have match that.”
Still, Frese said that her Maryland team is “built for these moments. We don’t bow down to anyone. I can usually throw in that we’re not a team that many people were talking about all season. In our sport, a few schools get talked about over and over. We have a story too and after this game, they’re going to know our name.”
If Maryland prevails, it will be another chapter in the overlapping stories between Frese and Walz, the pair working together first at Minnesota, then Walz coming with Frese to Maryland. There have been battles in the times since the pair parted since, which is understandable: no coach enjoys the successes either one has logged in this game without an extreme competitive streak.
But when Frese goes to shake Walz’s hand at the end of this one, she’ll remember, too, the times off the court.
“It is really cool to see former assistants have success as head coaches,” Frese said. “I remember giving Jeff time off so he could be at home with his newborn, so you not only know them as coaches, but as people too.”
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