MINNEAPOLIS — Jeff Walz has had a lot of success getting players to transfer to Louisville over the last few years, including three starters on his Final Four team this season.
He's not the only coach in the Final Four who has bolstered the roster by using the transfer portal as both South Carolina and UConn have found supplemental players from it.
Still Walz, Dawn Staley and Geno Auriemma think the amount of players looking to change schools is getting out of control.
“I always like to say, ‘The grass is greener on the other side because it’s fertilized with a bunch of bull,’” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “I think there are a lot of players that will jump into the portal after one year that don’t really have a good grasp of why they’re doing it.”
The topic is timely for fans of the Gopher women's basketball program, as just yesterday star shooting guard Sara Scalia announced she was entering the portal and would be leaving Minnesota. This season Scalia averaged nearly 18 points for the lady Gophers and shot 41.3% from behind the 3-point arc.
Staley, for one, likens the portal to Twitter, Instagram or TikTok.
“It’s a big ol’ fad that just keeps continuing,” she said. “Is it out of hand? It absolutely is. I don’t know how you control it. But it’s their way. It’s their way of controlling their own destinies.”
Both Staley and Auriemma noted that there were currently more players seeking to transfer than there were scholarships available across the country.
“You know those 850 people in the portal? Three hundred of them are not going to find a school to go to because they’re going to realize it’s not the school they just left,” Auriemma said.
Despite the reservations, they're still playing along. Emily Engstler (Syracuse), Kianna Smith (California) and Chelsie Hall (Vanderbilt) have been key for Louisville. Engstler and Hall just joined the program this season.
When Engstler was considering the Cardinals, Walz went to Mykasa Robinson to discuss how her role would likely shrink if Engstler were to come and gauge her comfort level.
“She looked at me, and she’s like, ‘I’m tired of guarding her. If we can get her, yes, because she likes to win, and she wants to play with other good players,’” Walz said.
SOUTH CAROLINA SUPPORT
The Gamecocks have led the nation in average attendance for seven straight years, buoyed by a base of more than 10,000 season tickets. Despite the 1,200-mile distance from campus to downtown Minneapolis, there will be plenty of garnet-and-black-clad South Carolina fans voicing their support on Friday night when the Gamecocks take on Louisville.
“They’ve been with us when we weren’t a popular team or we weren’t a whole lot to cheer about,” Staley said. “This is my 14th year being at South Carolina, but the last probably 10, the fans have given us a ride that’s kind of irreplaceable.”
One of the catalysts for the attendance boom was giving fans as much as access to the program as they could, to build relationships and let the locals get to know the players as people.
“You really feel the love in the community,” guard Brea Beal said. “You can go to the store and run into somebody and they’re like, oh my gosh, just freaking out. It’s like a family.”
Walz spent one season at Minnesota on his climb up the coaching ladder, serving as an assistant under current Maryland coach Brenda Frese.
That was 20 years ago, when Hall of Fame finalist Lindsay Whalen was a sophomore for the Gophers on a breakthrough team that reached the Final Four two seasons later. The women's team at that time played in a smaller gym, the Pavilion, next door to Williams Arena where the Minnesota men's team has played since 1928.
A water pipe burst that winter, moving the women's team into the bigger venue. The Gophers were on a roll, and the first game in the building known as “The Barn” was packed to the rafters.
“From that point on, we continued the rest of the season playing in the Barn in front of unbelievable crowds,” Walz said.
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