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Final Four Louisville Mississippi St Basketball

Former Nebraska assistant coach Jeff Walz has guided Louisville to eight Sweet 16s and three Final Fours.

I've never been to a Louisville women's basketball home game, but I bet it's a fun atmosphere.

Jeff Walz no doubt only helps matters.

The Cardinals' 12th-year head coach is a hoot. Anybody who knew him during his days as a Nebraska assistant (1997-2001) would vouch for that description. 

"One of my kids threw a terrible pass right to me, basically," said Walz, referring to Louisville's 95-73 home win Monday night against previously unbeaten Miami (Ohio). "I caught it and squared up to shoot the damn thing. I'm telling you, I had perfect form!"

Walz launched into the story as soon as we began a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. He was always fired up as a Husker assistant, and he still sounds that way as a 47-year-old head coach who has guided Louisville to eight trips to the NCAA Sweet 16, three to the Final Four and two to the national championship game (2009, 2013). The Cardinals have averaged 27 wins per season under Walz's watch.

So, he's no joker. He demands plenty from his players, all the while retaining a lively sense of humor.

"I would've made the damn shot, too," Walz said as he continued his story from Monday night. "My players know it, too. They were like, 'Oh, God, if he would've shot that and made it, we would've never heard the end of it.'

"And they're damn right."

When Nebraska (2-3) plays fifth-ranked Louisville (6-0) at 6 p.m. Thursday in the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, the Huskers will encounter a challenging environment for a road team. Since the 2010-11 season, when the arena opened, the Cardinals have ranked in the top-five nationally in attendance, drawing an average of 9,300 per game.

Walz's teams have a 124-15 record (.892) in the building. No wonder so many people turn out.

"I think part of it is just my good looks," he said.

It's more than just winning that draws the big crowds. There's elbow grease involved, such as Walz convincing the late Pat Summitt to bring her Tennessee team to Louisville for the first game in the arena, men or women's. Or it's Walz buying a drink for each of the first 2,500 fans through the turnstiles for a 2013 Preseason WNIT home game.

Yes, the center does sell alcohol. His tab was $5,000.

"It was, you know, 'The first soda's on me,'" Walz said. "Well, it got turned into beer, and I had people sending me scathing e-mails. …"

The fans have to love the guy. Walz and his players sign autographs right after every home game — win or lose. Following the final buzzer, Walz addresses the team for a minute at half court, then officials put 10 minutes on the scoreboard clock, during which time coaches and players are available to the fans.

"We're just big believers in you have to make it a personal touch in women's basketball," Walz said. "You've got to make people feel like they're invested, like they're a part of it."

The big crowds also enjoy Louisville's up-tempo playing stye. The Cardinals, a Final Four qualifier last season, play as fast as their head coach talks. They get up plenty of shots.

"A lot of people are like, 'Hey, this isn't bad,'" Walz said.

Louisville has four returning starters and 10 letterwinners from last year’s team that finished 36-3 overall, including 15-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Walz might think twice before challenging some of his players to a game of H-O-R-S-E; the Cardinals average 81.7 points while shooting 50.3 percent from the field, including 44.1 percent from three-point range.

In other words, Nebraska will be a heavy underdog. Even so, Walz is wary of the Huskers largely because of his respect for head coach Amy Williams. In 1998, she was a senior guard for an NU team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

"I coached her for a year — scrappy, played hard, basketball smart," Walz said. "It's not surprising she's really good at coaching."

Walz stays in touch with Nebraska football equipment manager Jay Terry, who worked in a similar capacity at the Devaney Sports Center when Walz was an assistant under former Husker head coach Paul Sanderford. Those were memorable days, Walz said.

"Back then, coach (Tom) Osborne was winning national titles and the vibe in the athletic department was phenomenal," he said. "It was an exciting time."

Walz has enjoyed plenty of exciting times at Louisville. As long as he's in charge, the fun likely won't wane.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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