LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Ever the basketball impresario on the banks of the Ohio River, Louisville coach Jeff Walz keeps reassuring fans that, yes, the Cardinals will still win games this season. Those victories might not look as pretty as in the past. Not without Asia Durr. Not with one starter remaining from a Final Four appearance barely 18 months ago. But life goes on.
If part of being an elite program is building around transformational players like Durr -- or Shoni Schimmel and Angel McCoughtry -- an equal part is successfully starting anew after they leave. Which is why Elizabeth Balogun couldn't have picked a better time to come to town.
A player who was voted the ACC's best freshman a season ago at Georgia Tech now scores those points for the Cardinals after a transfer and NCAA eligibility waiver. Her presence will help the Cardinals start over on the court, but she doesn't need to be Durr's replacement. Balogun, who moved to the United States from Nigeria when barely a teenager after her mother died, is about the least likely person in college basketball to worry about following in anyone else's footsteps.
Not after the journey she already had.
"She's very friendly, very goofy -- she has an outgoing personality," Louisville senior Jazmine Jones said. "She's not standoffish. She's a really sweet person and has a nice heart."
About the only moments Balogun grows quiet, Jones noted, are when it comes to talking about herself. That's when the tattoo on her forearm, the one that reads "Justina," says everything.
Balogun was not much more than 10 years old when her mother Justina was diagnosed with breast cancer. The middle of three children, with an older brother and younger sister, she tried to pick up some of the slack around the house. When her mom was well enough, Balogun helped. When her mom wasn't well enough, Balogun tried to do it all. So much so that she said school all but stopped for her for the two years that followed her mom's diagnosis.
"I had to be the big sister, I've got to be the mother, I've got to be the little sister," Balogun recalled. "I've got to be everything at that moment. I had to learn fast. I had to learn how to wash the dishes, do a little bit of cooking, run the errands. I had to learn how to stand next to my mom and answer her needs."
Justina passed away after a two-year fight with the disease. Soon thereafter Balogun's father decided it would be best for his eldest daughter to come to school in the United States sooner than she would have if not for her mom's illness. There she joined her brother, Ezekiel, already a student at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Angry at being sent away, unsure in her new home, Balogun struggled to trust that her dad knew what he was doing.
"I cried every day because I wanted to go back home so bad," Balogun recalled.
She still had basketball. Her dad taught her the game, but her mom, who played extensively growing up, was no small influence of her own. School always came first in her mom's mind, whereas her dad was usually a bit more willing to indulge the passion for basketball. But both parents understood that she loved playing. Nothing Balogun has encountered has diminished that.
"People don't understand, it's like I breathe basketball -- I can't do without it," said Balogun, who is averaging 9.6 points and 5.8 rebounds for the Cardinals (5-0). "The whole situation made me embrace it -- if [her mom] could fight through that? I'm on the court, and I'm just tired? I need to push myself. That made me love basketball even more."
After going through all of that, choosing to leave Georgia Tech in search of stability amidst the turmoil of former coach MaChelle Joseph's contentious dismissal was hardly daunting.
"If I could leave Nigeria when I was 13," Balogun said, "I could definitely cope anywhere."
And Louisville offered something of a blank canvas. She wanted to stay in the ACC. She wanted a business major to help keep a promise to her mom that she would one day open her own business. And she wanted a program where she would have a chance to play. After losing not just Durr's nearly 2,500 career points but also fellow WNBA draft picks Sam Fuehring and Arica Carter, the Cardinals didn't have any trouble meeting all three criteria. Balogun also felt comfortable with Walz and his staff from when Louisville recruited her in high school.
She joins not only former Georgia Tech classmate Elizabeth Dixon, a 6-foot-5 post whose transfer replenished Louisville's post rotation, but also highly touted Japanese freshman Noriko Konno and redshirt senior Yacine Diop, who was in Louisville last season but played just three games as a transfer before an ACL tear. All are already playing important roles.
On a scale of 1 to 10 measuring experience and institutional memory, Walz said the Cardinals generally started the past few seasons at around five or six. Even after Schimmel left, a large core remained with Final Four experience. But he puts the rating of his own creation at about a two or three this season.
"We're still figuring it out," said Jones, one of a few returning rotation players. "It's going to take some time. It's not going to be perfect. It takes time to build chemistry."
No one is expecting Balogun to be the sole centerpiece. After averaging 14.6 points per game on more than 13 field goal attempts per game as a freshman at Georgia Tech, she averaged 10 points on almost six field goal attempts in Louisville's first three games this season. Along with Jones and Dana Evans and the post contributions of Dixon, Bionca Dunham and Kylee Shook, she is one of many players Walz thinks can score 15-20 points on a given night.
"We're trying to expand her game," Walz said. "That's one thing we talked about when we recruited her when she decided to transfer was trying to get her game to a point where it's a little bit more well-rounded. Don't just be known as a shooter. I want her to be known as a scorer. In order to do that, you've got to be able to put the ball on the ground."
That will in many ways be the story of Louisville's season. Can Jones emerge as a fourth-quarter alpha who creates her own points? Can Evans knock down shots at a consistent rate to complement her playmaking and defense? Can Shook turn all her potential into consistent production? Louisville has more depth than a season ago. It has talent. What remains to be seen is how much progress the Cardinals make, individually and collectively, by March.
That includes indicators like how often we see Balogun going to the basket.
"I can dribble," Balogun countered with a grin. "They just leave me open, and I'm like 'If you leave me open, I'm going to shoot it.' People don't know I'm a pass-first payer -- I look to pass. But they leave me open and I'm going to shoot the ball.
"But he's right, I still need to work on my dribble and score on layups and not just shoot 3s."
So a new chapter in her story begins, just as it does for Louisville. There are new challenges. There are, as she says, differences when situations change. You learn to adapt.
"I feel like I've been here for like four years, to be honest," Balogun said. "My teammates are great, I love them. I came and I just flowed with them. I can easily talk to them, easily talk about basketball or talk about outside of basketball."
No one at Louisville knows better what it really means to start over.
But trying to win games? That's just about playing basketball. That's the fun part.