In unfamiliar role, Louisville tries to fend off the tried-and-true offense of Oregon State

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Each successive basketball iteration has added to the story for Louisville.

Angel McCoughtry, Candyce Bingham and a group of players who had to make sense of a coach they didn't choose put the Cardinals on the map when they made a surprise run to the Final Four in 2009. That was just two years after Jeff Walz was hired to coach a program that had five all-time tournament wins.

The next generation, as measured in the four-year lifespans of college athletics, kept Louisville in the spotlight. Led in points and personality by Shoni Schimmel, there was the epic Sweet 16 upset against Baylor and another appearance in the national championship game in 2013.

That leaves the current generation with its own task in Sunday's regional final against sixth-seeded Oregon State. A No. 1 seed for the first time, Louisville needs to win as a favorite.

The Cardinals can't surprise people any longer. They can only do what is expected of them.

That isn't always easy, but it's what separates the super programs from the rest.

"We're not stopping here," Louisville senior Myisha Hines-Allen said after Friday's comfortable win against fourth-seeded Stanford. "We want to go to the Final Four. We want to compete for a national championship. And we know we have to take care of business on Sunday."

Louisville has been here before, and it wasn't ready. Much as it pains the locals in Lexington and their affinity for all things big and blue, Rupp Arena will be a sea of red Sunday, with Louisville little more than an hour's drive away. But the Cardinals were even closer to home in a 2014 regional final on their own court. Only a No. 3 seed in that instance, but still the higher seed in the game and the clear favorite with home-court advantage, Louisville lost to Maryland.

Yet out of the success, first McCoughtry's and then Schimmel's teams achieved came rewards that shape the present day. The Cardinals have now been to Final Fours. They have played for titles. That allowed different sorts of targets in recruiting and a wholly different sales pitch.

Cardinals associate coach Stephanie Norman has been with Walz since the beginning in Louisville (also of note Sunday, she also worked at Oregon State more than two decades ago).

"We never talked about even going to a Final Four," Norman said of the early days with the Cardinals. "How could we? We had never been. We talked to the kids, when we first came, just about building a culture, getting us past the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was setting tangible goals and not unrealistic, at the time, goals.

"You have to build something before you profess you're going to go win the national championship. That's great, but it's just words. You have to show a foundation and some proof."

When they could do that, people listened. Hines-Allen arrived the year after the disappointment against Maryland and Friday scored her 2,000th career point. Asia Durr arrived the year after that, ranked by many as the nation's best recruit. Top 100 recruits became the norm. And with them, Louisville became taller, longer and faster and deeper. The kind of team good enough to not just spring carefully crafted March upsets, but one that could beat Notre Dame by 33 points in the regular season and sweep the ACC regular season and tournament titles.

"Louisville hits you in a lot of different ways," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "It's not just one matchup. It's a collective force that they play with. And it's the intensity that they play with, the speed they play with. That's why they've done what they've done this year. Within that, they certainly have some really special talent. Asia is incredible, and Hines[-Allen] is unbelievable."


That amorphousness is the source of contrast in Sunday's game.

Oregon State has itself climbed toward the upper echelon by finding a successful formula and executing it with rare precision. Find a post player, even one who requires some developmental work, in a day and age when old-school posts are a dwindling commodity, and surround her with big guards and versatile forwards who shoot 3-pointers with the consistency demanded by the modern game. That formula works with Marie Gulich -- the Beavers building around their lone senior during a run of excellence that dates back two months now. But it also worked with Ruth Hamblin before her. It will be the plan next year when Maryland transfer Destiny Slocum is eligible and 6-foot-9 Andrea Aquino, the highest-ranked recruit in program history, sets up shop in the middle.

That it's predictable makes it no easier to defend.

"It's been the same thing from day one, from the first game," Durr said of the challenge. "We've played teams that had great 3-point shooters, who had great post players. So it's going to be the same thing, the same principles, the same thing we've talked about throughout the whole year."

Well, yes and no.

Louisville has played and beaten teams like Oregon that spread the floor well and shoot the 3-pointer (it played and lost to another, albeit not as badly as some, against Connecticut). It has played a handful of skilled posts as big or bigger than the 6-5 Gulich, notably Michigan's Hallie Thome. But Norman couldn't come up with a team on Louisville's schedule that Oregon State most resembles. The Cardinals have played the component parts at the heart of Oregon State's current run, but they haven't played a team that had this particular inside-outside mix.

Which is why Louisville finds itself at a crossroads. It believes that with the current group, it possesses the talent and the chemistry to do what programs like Connecticut and Notre Dame do, which is assert their identity no matter the circumstances. And Louisville's identity is rooted in its ability to adjust to any opponent.

"We change, almost every year, what we do and how we do it," Norman said. "We're really kind of a scouting-report program, so whatever the opposition does well, we try to take that away. So in recruiting, we try and look at a diversity of type of kid -- if we need to find a shooter to complement athletes we have or a face-up four that can knock down some 3s. ...

"We try to get a lot of different pieces so that when it comes to different styles of basketball that people play, we can match up with that."

They have Durr and Hines-Allen, the All-Americans. But they also have the defensive quickness of freshman Dana Evans with which they could harass Oregon State's ball handlers to a greater degree than Tennessee or Baylor were able to. They have the length of 6-4 Kylee Shook off the bench to challenge Gulich or alter looks on the perimeter. They have Sam Fuehring and Jazmine Jones to pressure Oregon State out of its patient comfort zone.

Even the Cardinals may not settle on a plan until Sunday morning, but there will be a plan.

"I know Louisville enough to know that they switch things up all the time, and you need to be ready for anything against them," Rueck said. "They will roll the dice and try different things and see if works, and then try something different. I know that."

They've been doing that for more than a decade now.

This team can't be the first Louisville squad to get to a Final Four. It can be the first to get there when it was expected to do just that.