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No longer overlooked, Louisville learning to embrace new identity

Last season, Mariya Moore, above, and Myisha Hines-Allen emerged as the most productive players on a Louisville team that still had plenty of proven veterans. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Already one of the most sought after recruits, Asia Durr had far more in common with No. 1 seed Baylor than its opponent as she watched the defending national champion play a Sweet 16 game against Louisville in 2013.

Baylor was the upper crust, the 1 percent of college basketball that season. So was Durr, a high school guard who would soon enough have her pick of scholarship offers from those 1-percenter programs.

Yet like much of the country outside of Waco that night, she embraced the underdog. Durr, too, was swept up in what will be remembered as one of the biggest upsets in postseason history.

"Everybody pretty much knew, or thought, that Baylor was going to win," she said. "I really liked how [the Cardinals] came out and they kept playing. They didn't give up. Coach [Jeff] Walz coached his butt off, the players played their butts off and they never gave up. They didn't back down from Brittney Griner. I really liked that about them.

"Most programs, they would try, but they wouldn't try their hardest. They would come out the first half, or the first few minutes, but then they'd back down and get scared. [Louisville] stayed with it through the good and the bad."

The impression it left on her is part of the reason that Durr, the nation's No. 1 recruit according to some analysts, is now a freshman at Louisville. Hoopgurlz rates her the best of the Cardinals' five top-100 recruits this season, newcomers who join returnees and leading scorers Mariya Moore and Myisha Hines-Allen. Those two were top-50 recruits a season ago, as was Sydney Brackemyre, now healthy after missing last season with an injury.

It is clearly a season of change for Louisville. That much is obvious from the roster, where redshirt junior Cortnee Walton is the only player who has been around more than a season. But it isn't just bodies changing. The program's identity is also undergoing renovations. An outsider under coach Jeff Walz, its Final Four teams molded around mercurial talents Angel McCoughtry and Shoni Schimmel, Louisville is becoming part of the 1 percent it long tormented.

Rebuilding season? Try No. 8 in the preseason polls, on the heels of ACC rivals Notre Dame and Florida State.

So as a matter of basketball philosophy, which would you rather be: The team that knows its opponents overlook it? Or, the team that knows its opponents fear it?

"I would say the underdog because you get to upset the people that everyone fears," Hines-Allen said. "Being underdogs, you have nothing to lose. No one is fearing you, so they're not really practicing as hard as they need to because they're thinking, 'Oh, we're about to play Louisville; we're going to smack them by 30.' But that's not the case."

That identity served Louisville well. Twice in the past decade it played for a national championship as a No. 3 seed or lower. Rutgers was the only other team to do so even once in that span. It isn't a matter of winning without talent. No program does that, and Walz argues that players such as Candyce Bingham and Antonita Slaughter were merely negligently underrated. But whether underrated or, like McCoughtry and Schimmel, unsuitable for cookie-cutter molds, Louisville didn't always build itself from the same player pool as its Final Four peers.

The past two recruiting classes suggest that is no longer the case. Louisville increasingly wins there, too.

Durr heard some of her peers talk about building programs as a selling point, but that wasn't what she sought. Just as it isn't what Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd or Nneka Ogwumike chose. All wanted the stability of established excellence that could push them to be better.

"I've never really looked at is as I want to go somewhere and start something," Durr said. "I was so focused on: I wanted to be comfortable where I'm at. I want to be happy. I want to have a great four years, playing with the best of the best, playing with great teammates, playing for a great coaching staff. The most important thing was I just wanted to be happy and be able to have fun."

Durr averaged more than 30 points per game as a high school senior in Georgia, but it is as much her ball handling, court vision and brain that could set her apart at the college level once she is healthy. A groin injury forced her to miss the Under-19 world championship this summer. A week and a half before the opener, Walz said Durr was practicing but still not 100 percent. He added he would be "elated" if she could play 15 to 18 minutes in the first game Sunday against Cal.

"Offensively, she makes the craziest shots. She's a little like a fancy player, something like Shoni Schimmel, but she gets the job done. She's not turning the ball over, and she looks for her teammates." Myisha Hines-Allen on teammate Briahanna Jackson, a transfer from UCF

A part of the United States U-19 team that won a gold medal in Russia, with Walz as one of coach Dawn Staley's assistants, Moore noted that her USA Basketball teammates expressed surprise at how little Walz yelled. Any international referee familiar with his sideline demeanor in the ACC probably felt the same way. As Staley's assistant, it wasn't his role to be the loudest voice.

But when asked if some of that mellowness carries over to working with a young Louisville team, Moore just laughed.

That isn't how it works.

"I'm who I am; I'm not changing who I am," Walz said. "I've always been smart enough to teach each kid and coach each kid differently. You come to games, people who come to games, sure, they see me loud. And that's because we're playing in front of 12 or 13,000 people. But I know which ones I need to put my arm around, which ones I can kick in the butt. You know that by personality, you know that by getting to know them. That's why I think it's important to get to know your kids, in today's day and age more than ever."

Of course, old habits die hard. Along with all of the high-profile freshmen and sophomores, one of the keys to the season might be Briahanna Jackson, a transfer from Central Florida. Far less publicized than moves like Diamond DeShields to Tennessee or Alexis Jones to Baylor, in large part because Louisville kept the addition close to the vest until this fall, Jackson was a prolific scorer in two seasons at UCF and hasn't shied away from comparisons to a predecessor in her new home.

"Offensively, she makes the craziest shots," Hines-Allen said. "She's a little like a fancy player, something like Shoni Schimmel, but she gets the job done. She's not turning the ball over, and she looks for her teammates."

She is the kind of player Walz is so good at using to beat the programs that didn't want her out of high school. But she's surrounded by players that everyone wanted.

So which is it? Is it better to be the rebel or the establishment? Indie or major label?

Fearless or feared?

"I would say both," Durr said. "Obviously, you can't have both, but I think you can have a taste of this and a taste of that. Simply because you can be a person who, there could be times when people consider you the underdog, and you can use that as motivation. You want to be that type of player, but then at the same time, you want to be the best.

"You want to be great. You want to be that player that people fear."

In the end, what Louisville might want more than anything is to be the giant everyone is rooting to see upset each spring.