( Jenny O'Bryan made the trip to Cuba and has written us an article on what she was there. We thank her for the reporting, insight and commentary. She also included many pictures...some from other sources. Enjoy this excellent piece of work!)
I will preface the rest of this article with the statement that while I enjoyed seeing the team play I was very quickly distracted and intrigued by my experience of foreign travel.
As all are aware by now, the team went 2-1 against the Cuban National team. If you are reading this to get a lot of stats, you can stop right now. I don’t have stats. Actually, I only attended two of the three games played. I spent the second day in Cuba on an excursion, exploring the countryside on horseback, away from the group and team.
You should know the arena where the team played was outdoors. There was a roof but the end zones were open to the elements. In fact, game 3 got a bit of a later tip as a strong storm had just finished and the court was wet as a result. As we arrived, much of the Cardinals staff were on their hands and knees drying the court. The elements were not ideal. As a fan on the sidelines, I found the heat and humidity overbearing. Youth being what it is, I am not sure how the players felt about it, but suffice it to say the dog days of August in Louisville might of felt like an early Autumn day, compared to the heat and humidity in Cuba.
Game one was also on the heels of traveling overnight. We had to be in the lobby of our Miami hotel at 2:30 a.m. Upon arriving in Cuba somewhere around 8:30 a.m. or so, our rooms were not ready. We all went straight from the airport to a driving tour of the city, exploring a Fort, and spent some time at a cigar store at the Fort . We arrived at the hotel around 1:00 p.m. had lunch, and had to wait for our rooms to be ready. The team barely got checked in (some of the coaching and support staff did not get checked in until we returned after the game) before they were back on the bus heading to the arena. So, along with the heat, the team had to be exhausted. The fact that the team won the first game by a score of something like 80-67 was surprising.
Game one opened with a ceremony of sorts, where each team paraded in and faced each other near center court. The National Anthem of each country was sung, and the game tipped.
What I can tell you about the games in general, is that they were very, very physical. For our Baby Birds, that have yet to play their first collegiate game, the physicality of the games had to be an eye opener. By the end of the first game, my hope was that we would get out of Cuba without an injury. I am grateful to say that we did.
I said as game one was being played, and I stand by my initial thoughts, that I am not sure how much we can extract from the games. Rather, the experience as a whole and the ability to have the July practices as a team, are where the true benefits are reaped for the program. (It goes with out saying the trip provided an even greater cultural experience). The opportunity to get to practice during the summer, with another large class of freshman, will certainly give the team a leg up as we head into basketball season.
I can’t write this article without commenting some on the newcomers to the team, as well as initial thoughts about some returning players.
I’ll start with a few of the players that we already know.
To my untrained eye, Arica Carter, Sam Fuehring, Myisha Hines-Allen and Durr all seem to have put work in this summer. Carter actually looks more muscular to me. Could be an illusion, as I am seeing the players up close in a way that I have not previously seen them before. That being said, she looks stronger. Fuehring looked more confident and her shot seemed to be falling more than I remember from last season. My memory last season of Fuehring is that she found herself in foul trouble a lot. Hard to know how that will play out, as these were very physical games with few fouls being called. Hines-Allen looks to be in the best shape we have ever seen her. At the end of last season, it was almost as if she could not miss a shot. I can’t say that from this trip. However, I have no doubt that she is as strong, focused and ready for this season as she looked at the end of last season.
Asia Durr was probably the bright spot for me. As the number 1 recruit in the nation last year, we never really saw that player. Durr looks completely healthy and full speed. It was obvious last season that her speed was hampered by the injury. She looked like the player I know we all expected to see last year. A healthy Durr and a focused Hines-Allen will make for an exciting season. This is not to say that the other returning players have not put in work this summer. I am sure they have. These are the observations that jumped out at me.
There are a lot of new faces on the team. I will give you my initial thoughts on each of them.
Taylor Johnson, the graduate transfer will have one season as a Cardinal. My assumption is that she was brought in to help with the point guard duties, having lost Taja Cole in the off-season. What stood out to me with T. Johnson was her defense. She was fast and interrupting plays and getting her hands on the ball and in the passing lanes.
Bionca Dunham, is one of the two uber athletic freshman. That is the immediate impression I got from seeing her. Her size and body remind me of Asia Taylor.
Ciera Johnson, looked good to me around the basket and mobile for a big. She scored the first basket in the opening seconds of the game. Known as a strong rebounder in high school, she had more than one rebound knocked out of her hands. I know this will be remedied, and she will get stronger and grow as a player as she adjusts to the physicality of college ball.
Jazmine Jones, is the second of the uber athletic newbies. This young woman has a high motor and can jump out of the gym. If she has the basketball acumen to match her athleticism she is going to be an incredible player to suit up for the Cardinals.
Jessica Laemmle, the local walk on from Mercy High School. Cardinal fans have grown to really embrace walk-ons . Past walk-ons have gained the reputation of being spark plugs off the bench, good defenders and hard workers. Too soon to know the impact Laemmle will have on the team, but this youngster does not seem intimidated by size or strength of her opponent.
Kylee Shook, the 6-5 player out of Colorado and all time shot blocker in the sate. She impressed me with her defense in the paint, blocking and altering shots. Within seconds of coming in to the game for the fist time, she made her first basket. She is going to need to get stronger, but her wingspan is going to give Cardinal fans plenty to cheer about.
Sydney Zambrotta, the guard out of New York. Seems to be comfortable from behind the 3 point line. Is she a shooter, or a maker? I know Coach Walz wants makers and assume he knew what he was getting with this long ball shooter.
I head in to this season a bit more reserved about the potential about the newcomers. I think many fans last season were overly exuberant by the freshman class, but quickly realized it takes time for the game to slow down for freshman. It will be no different for this group. One major difference, however, is that this group has a more seasoned roster to work alongside them. Last year's freshman needed to be impacting from the start. We were an exceptionally young team last season. This years group of newcomers actually have the luxury of upperclassmen and not being needed to make strong contributions out of the gate. If they can, that is great, but the need is not as great.
My take away: The Cardinals are loaded with talent, across all positions. Practices should be good and players pushing each other to get better and earn their minutes on the court. I am excited for the season to begin!
( We appreciate all the hard work, time and effort Jenny spent on compiling this article for us. As she wrote me in the preface, 'I am sorry it took so long to get to you, but you know how slow I write'.
We've been known to say that good things can take awhile and this was certainly worth any amount of wait! -Paulie)