Angel at heart of Louisville's success

Louisville forward Angel McCoughtry is majoring in communications, with a minor in African-American theater. She took an acting class and found she had natural talent. Of course, she has a few other skills, to say the least, in basketball.

And acting can come in handy on the court, she jokes.

"You know, like when you try to take a charge," she said, chuckling.

Actually, there's little pretense to McCoughtry, a 6-foot-1 junior who had a triple-double (21 points, 11 rebounds, 10 steals) in a 67-45 victory over Xavier on Sunday. She mentions she likes to cook for herself.

Anything special?

"Hamburger Helper," she said. "It's not too hard."

OK, well, she is a college kid. And her ability in hoops is quite a bit more refined. Louisville was 27-8 last season, and McCoughtry was named Big East Player of the Year. It was an honor that left her amazed.

"Oh, my goodness," she said. "My freshman year, [Rutgers'] Cappie Pondexter got it. I was just like, 'Wow, she's really good.' And the next year, I never would have guessed my name would be called to get that award. It was a big shock.

"I really worked on my game a lot. It shows you how hard work does pay off, and staying focused."

The "simple" lessons often are the most profound, and McCoughtry -- a Kodak All-American last season -- has learned a lot in her 21 years. A prep star out of St. Francis High in Baltimore, she originally committed to St. John's. Things didn't work out academically, though, so she went to The Patterson School in North Carolina for a year of college prep work and did the recruiting process over.

Naturally, one of the schools that had some interest was Maryland, in her home state. But McCoughtry knew the Terps were getting Marissa Coleman and understood she would have a better chance to play more somewhere else. McCoughtry did get to know then-Maryland assistant Jeff Walz, though. And that would come in handy later.

Like this season, when Walz took over the Cardinals following Tom Collen's departure to Arkansas. McCoughtry had come to play for Collen in Louisville, despite her initial reluctance to visit a place with which she was totally unfamiliar. But she found out she liked the campus, the city, the people, the atmosphere.

Walz was quite happy in his position at Maryland; he also had been an assistant to Terps coach Brenda Frese when she was at Minnesota for one season. He had applied for one head coaching job last season and didn't even get a look. So he figured he was more than content to stay put with the Terps.

But then Louisville came open and called Walz. A native of the Bluegrass State, who played hoops at Northern Kentucky and previously coached at Western Kentucky, Walz relished the chance to come home.

"I've got a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old," Walz said. "Just being back by my family and my wife's family has really made things better for us. The town's been great and very welcoming.

"And, most importantly, the players here have really accepted the change and embraced it. It's been exciting."

Walz began his coaching career at Western Kentucky, where his sister, Jaime, played, and then went with coach Paul Sanderford when he took over at Nebraska. Then he went to Frese's staff with the Golden Gophers and Terps.

"I've been fortunate to work with two of the best in the business," Walz said. "And then to coach in the Big 12, the Big Ten and the ACC -- there are just great coaches throughout those leagues that I've had a chance to learn from."

Now Walz is putting all that to use at Louisville, which is 6-2. The Cardinals had early losses against Western Carolina and Minnesota but have won five in row. McCoughtry had 19 points in just 14 minutes in Louisville's 87-52 victory over Vermont on Wednesday.

"She's a kid whose instincts for the game are as good as anybody I've coached," Walz said. "She's scoring within the offense. We're trying to press as much as we can defensively, and Angel is really buying into that. It's a perfect fit for her game."

McCoughtry agrees that the system suits her.

"We're all getting better and adjusting each game," McCoughtry said. "Our team is long and lanky, and we like to get up and down the court. That's really our style of play."

McCoughtry says her favorite athlete is Dawn Staley, who served as her coach on the U.S. Pan Am Games team this summer. McCoughtry led that squad to a gold medal with a team-best 12.6 points per game.

"I really learned a lot from her; she taught me so many things that could improve my game," McCoughtry said of Staley, the Temple coach and a point guard legend. "Things like my ballhandling and understanding how to go different speeds to mix up your opponents. And little mental tips, game-situational stuff.

"Plus, it really helped me to play with those players, the best in the nation. Everybody was really nice. This was my first time with USA Basketball, and they made me feel comfortable. (North Carolina's) Erlana Larkins and (Stanford's) Candice Wiggins, especially, were a big inspiration to me. Now I can bring that to my team."

Competing with that group -- after her Big East award and being named a Kodak All-American last season -- helped McCoughtry fully realize that she is, indeed, one of the top players in the college game.

"I believe I can say that now," she said. "And if feels really good to be able to say that."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.