Jeff Walz Seeks Another Gold Medal With USA Basketball U18s
The goosebumps keep Jeff Walz coming back to USA Basketball.
When the coach of the University of Louisville women’s team thinks of why he chooses to spend summers coaching young women in far-flung destinations representing their country, he recalls moments like the one he experienced in 2015 in Russia.
Walz was an assistant on the USA Basketball U19 team that advanced to the championship game of the 2015 FIBA U19 World Cup. Playing the hosts in hostile territory, the Americans prevailed in what was a hard-fought contest. It remains a game he tells stories about when discussing his favorite moments on the hardwood.
“When you’re going to compete against Russia for the gold-medal game, it was a packed house,” Walz recalled. “The crowd was very anti-American, pro-Russia obviously, the environment and the excitement. It was just feeling what it means to be out there coaching and playing for your country. I thought that, for me, was one of the biggest moments that I’ve been a part of, knowing that it was a world championship and the excitement that was in the gym.”
Walz is back this summer to take on his fifth coaching assignment for USA Basketball. In July, he will lead the USA U18 National Team in the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. It will be his second time as a USA Basketball head coach after leading the U23 National Team to the title at the 2017 U24 Four Nations Tournament. He has come a long way since beginning his coaching career at the middle school level in the early 1990s.
He has built Louisville into a perennial contender for Atlantic Coast Conference titles and Final Four appearances. In 11 seasons with the Cardinals, he has led the program to the NCAA Tournament 10 times, with three Final Four trips and appearances in two national championship games. It’s the kind of coaching resume suited to leading a team of the best players in the nation in international competition.
“It’s first-class everything,” Walz said, explaining what he appreciates about coaching USA Basketball teams. “It’s just how everything is run. I’ve enjoyed every opportunity I’ve ever had to be associated with USA Basketball. I love the attention to detail and just the way they do things. Sure, winning is very important, but it’s not everything. They want the players to have great opportunities and great experiences that really just add to the success.”
Walz also appreciates the opportunity to spend time on and off the court with some of his peers who lead college programs of their own throughout the country. This summer, UCLA coach Cori Close, University of Delaware coach Natasha Adair, University of South Florida coach Jose Fernandez and University of Georgia coach Joni Taylor will work as assistant coaches or court coaches with the team.
Walz said he learns a lot each year from the other great basketball minds in the room. He said being open to that learning and sharing has been one of the greatest lessons he has learned in serving as a coach for USA Basketball.
“It’s enjoyable for me because we get the opportunity to sit down and talk basketball and share ideas and share philosophies, and I think that is one of the most important things,” Walz said. “You’ve got to be willing to come out there as a coach and be flexible. There are so many different ways to play and different styles. You’ve got to be flexible and willing to adjust and willing to take input because not one way is the only way to do things. Sometimes somebody might have an idea that is completely opposite of what I was thinking, but it might be the right way to go.”
Walz said he appreciates seeing his young players experience new cultures when the team travels overseas to compete. It’s one of his favorite aspects of the USA Basketball coaching experience. He said he never dreamed he would travel the world and see so many different countries in his role as a coach, and he knows it can be an eye-opening and life-changing experience for the players.
In his four previous coaching assignments with national teams, Walz has never coached at a younger level than U18, noting that he benefits from what coaches at younger levels have done. He said he doesn’t have to deal with player egos and concerns about roles within the team because most of the players who participate in training camp and who are ultimately selected to the team have been through the process before at younger levels.
“So they’re very familiar with what’s at stake and what the goal is and what they’re trying to do,” he said. “When you get to the U18, they know the importance of picking their individual talents and putting it together into a team. With your high school team, you may be the leading scorer, but out here, you may be called upon to rebound or defend. I really believe that they all understand what the goal is and that’s to win gold.”