LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Jeff Walz doesn’t know yet where he’ll watch Louisville’s NCAA Tournament opener against Robert Morris.
The Cardinals coach, who is suspended for the game, hints at being close enough to quickly rejoin his top-seeded team if it gets past the 16th-seeded Colonials on Friday. He didn’t say whether he’ll mingle with fans, but the excitable Walz isn’t stressed about being a postseason spectator — for now.
“I’m going to be fine,” said Walz, who will serve a one-game NCAA suspension for berating tournament officials during last year’s Final Four. “You know, we’ve had a year to prepare for this. It’s not like we just found out three days ago.
“We went through a dry run during the nonconference season where (associate head coach) Stephanie (Norman) took care of everything — pregame talk, all the substitutions, play-calling, halftime talk. I actually enjoyed it.”
Most important for Louisville (29-3) was that it thumped UT Martin by 40 points back in December during a 14-0 start that earned the Cardinals their second consecutive No. 1 tournament seeding, this year in the Albany Region. They seek a similar result at home in their inaugural meeting against Robert Morris (22-10), which earned an automatic berth as Northeast Conference tournament champion.
“I was just so happy he wasn’t coaching us. We got a break from him,” senior guard Arica Carter recalled, laughing. “We have a great staff, so it’s not a big difference.”
Friday’s other first-round game at Louisville matches No. 8 seed Michigan against No. 9 Kansas State, both of which are 21-11.
For the Cardinals, there are other concerns beyond missing their coach. They could be short-handed on the floor.
Senior forward Sam Fuehring will return to the Cardinals after turning her ankle in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game loss to Notre Dame. Fuehring proclaimed herself 95 percent healthy on Thursday and vowed to be better by tipoff.
Carter, meanwhile, is improving after missing the title game with an injured left knee. She is waiting for clearance to play.
No matter what, Walz and the Cardinals see opportunities for other players to fill voids and complement All-American guard Asia Durr (21.3 points per game). The coach hopes sophomore guard Dana Evans — who started against the Irish and had nine points and six assists — continues providing energy.
Walz also seeks greater contributions from forwards Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook. If nothing else, he wants his players to excel at their strengths to help Louisville make another deep tournament run.
“Our margin for error is thin,” Walz said. “We have to do what we do well and take pride in it.”
Louisville’s quest starts with getting past the surging Colonials, who have won four in a row and are 19-2 since January.
Robert Morris is playing its first Power Five opponent since losing 92-63 at No. 8 Iowa, which won the Big Ten tournament title and is a No. 2 seed in the Greensboro Region. That defeat was part of a 3-8 nonconference start, but RMU has turned things around since then and is eager to prove itself against one of the tournament’s best teams.
“Handling adversity, that’s going to be big,” coach Charlie Buscaglia said. “We’ve been growing so much with that. We’ve just got to stay on our path.”
Other things to watch in Friday’s first round:
ROLLING WILDCATS: Kansas State’s only losses in the past 10 games have come against top-ranked and No. 1 overall seed Baylor, including in the Big 12 championship game. Senior Kayla Goth ranks fifth nationally with 220 assists and sixth in per-game average at 6.9. Junior Peyton Williams leads KSU in scoring (15.9 points) and rebounding (9.6).
CENTER OF ATTENTION: Robert Morris center Nneka Ezeigbo followed up NEC Defensive Player of the Year honors by earning the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award with averages of 15.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1.7 steals. The 6-foot-2 junior is averaging 17.2 points and 8.7 boards over her last nine contests.
BACK TO BACK: Michigan is making its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Six Wolverines average at least 7.3 points per game, led by Big Ten Freshman of the Year Naz Hillmon (13.3, 6.9 rebounds), senior center Hallie Thorne (12.1) and senior guard Nicole Munger (10.2).
CENTRALLY LOCATED: Travel to this regional is close enough for followers of Robert Morris and Michigan to drive several hours. K-State came a little further, but players found the 80-minute flight from Manhattan, Kansas, manageable and the Derby City interesting. “We got to go explore some of this last night,” Kayla Goth said. “The team got to walk around, so I think we’re all super excited to be here.”