Louisville's Newcomers Are Putting the Nation on Notice

A closer look at how new additions for the Cardinals dominated the Blue Demons

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DePaul Louisville Basketball
Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith watches as her corner three-pointer goes in against DePaul on December 4. (Photo credit: Jessica Hill, AP)

This past offseason was one full of question marks for Cardinals Head Coach Jeff Walz. One of the most accomplished senior classes in program history, including Kylee Shook and Jazmine Jones, had played their last games in Louisville uniforms. Would he be able to successfully reload after losing so many key pieces that contributed to three straight ACC regular-season championships? How would Dana Evans look on the court without the recent WNBA draftees? Who on the team could assist Evans and replace the departed production? 

Luckily for Walz, he had acquired the pieces to answer the first and third questions, with the commitments of two five-star prospects in Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran. Van Lith was a McDonald’s All-American and Gatorade Washington Player of the Year who could score consistently off the dribble and facilitate. Cochran was a McDonald’s All-American as well, with great skill and physicality on the interior. Lastly, Kianna Smith had finally completed her sit-out year after transferring from Cal and was ready to contribute. Now, we just had to wait for the season to find out just how good the Cardinals would be.

Fast forward to last Friday’s clash against the ranked DePaul Blue Demons, and the year couldn’t have started off any better for Louisville: commanding victories over Southeast Missouri State and Eastern Kentucky, and Van Lith was even named ACC Freshman of the Week for her phenomenal start. The Cardinals were firing on all cylinders, but DePaul would be their first true test. How would the new arrivals look in their first matchup on national television? Furthermore, how would Kianna Smith acclimate herself in her Louisville debut after missing the first two games with an injury? Safe to say, the newcomers were more than prepared as Friday they proved their mettle to the college basketball landscape on both ends of the floor. 

The McDonald's All-Americans and Cal transfer ran roughshod on the Blue Demons over the first three quarters of Friday’s action. Smith had 11 points in her first seven minutes to give Louisville an early lead and a much-needed jolt offensively. Van Lith tallied nine points during a backbreaking 25-6 run in the second quarter. To cap it all off, Cochran couldn’t miss with 10 points during a monstrous 40-point third quarter for the Cardinals. 

Each new addition to the rotation made an indelible impact on the court. Their performances against ranked competition, along with the superlative play of Evans, are strong evidence that not only will Louisville be a national championship contender, but they have a solid shot to run the table. Let’s look at the film to see how the new (kinda new, in Kianna’s case) Cardinals carved up DePaul, potentially on their way to perfection.

Hailey Van Lith, more like Hailey Van Lethal

Now, one would think that it certainly isn’t easy as a highly touted freshman to come in and instantly be tasked with attempting to replace the value of someone like Jazmine Jones, who departed Louisville and was a first-round selection in the 2020 WNBA Draft. However, so far this season Van Lith has done just that and it’s been impressive to watch.

Jones was a crucial part of the senior class and her improvement from year to year was integral in the team reaching new heights. In particular, her growth as an outside shooter added a new wrinkle to the offense and boosted her draft stock tremendously. Well, in that area, Van Lethal can say she’s got Jones beat, as she is on pace to surpass Jones’ career three-point field goal total in just one year.

Van Lith has already totaled 11 three-pointers this season, including three makes against DePaul on Friday. You can see she’s already developing a rapport with Evans, rotating to the wing and the corner and capitalizing on Evans’ rim gravity. With over 42% of her points coming from three-point land so far this season, she’s comfortably establishing herself as one of the better shooters on the roster. 

She can also hit tough shots on the interior as well, showcased by the last clip; look at how Van Lith works to the center of the floor to give Elizabeth Balogun an escape valve from DePaul’s rotating press. Once she catches the pass, she utilizes a pump fake to get Lexi Held off her feet, then contorts her body for the fadeaway jumper. Van Lith already showing that level of recognition and technique as a freshman in her first nationally televised game is scary for the rest of the ACC.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Van Lith is not just a shooter. Even though she only measures in at 5-foot-7, Van Lith averages almost eight boards per game, using her timing and leaping ability to snag the rebound and immediately run the fast break à la Courtney Williams. Furthermore, she racks up stocks (steals + blocks) at a great rate and has flashed some solid interior defense.

In the first clip, Van Lith reaches around DePaul’s Dee Bekelja and pokes away the entry pass from Held; she then handles the rock in transition and forces Held to commit before she drops off the assist to Evans. In the third clip, we see Van Lith hold her own against Sonya Morris, who is no slouch in her own right. Watch as she uses her lateral quickness and flips her hips, all while keeping a high hand to contest and eventually smother a weak shot attempt before grabbing the rebound to lead another transition opportunity. The play ends in a turnover, but that sense of urgency is fun to see from Van Lith.

Sandwiched in between those two plays is a great sequence by Van Lith, giving us a hint of playmaking potential for the future. She catches the pass on the right wing, then manipulates the defense by faking the swing pass to Nyah Green. This causes Bekelja to sprint out at Green, which is then when Van Lith delivers the pass. Green now has Bekelja on her heels, leading to a jab step, rip-through move going left and a wide-open layup. 

Van Lith finished Friday’s game with 21 points and four rebounds along with a team-high plus/minus of +41. So, while she hasn’t the accolades Jones had at Louisville yet, it definitely seems that Van Lethal is on the right track to superstardom, just by knocking down shots and making winning plays.

Olivia Cochran, a wrecking ball of efficiency

Much like how Van Lith has been a crucial part in replacing what Jones offered Louisville last season, Cochran has been tasked with doing the same in the frontcourt for Kylee Shook, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year who also landed in New York on WNBA draft night. The major difference between the two players, though, is that Shook established herself as a stretch big pretty early on campus, while Cochran has been, so far at least, doing most of her damage inside the arc at a very accurate level.

Van Lith and Cochran famously played together on the 2019 Team USA 3-on-3 World Cup Team and went undefeated, securing a gold medal in Mongolia. Cochran finished the tournament with 41 total points, which ranked fourth. Since these two have arrived at Louisville, it’s been the same domination. Van Lith won ACC Freshman of the Week, but let’s not sleep on Cochran’s start to the season either. Entering Friday, she was averaging 16.0 points per game on 56.3% shooting from the field, and during the matchup it was clear that DePaul’s frontcourt was no match for the five-star recruit.

One skill Cochran showcased on Friday was her ability to run the floor in transition. We see in the first play how Evans attempts a layup over and around two DePaul defenders, which bounces off the right side of the rim. Luckily for the Cardinals, Cochran is right there in the nick of time to snatch the board over Bekelja and finish another bucket in the restricted area.

In the next play, we see Cochran’s processing speed and how she positions herself as soon as the shot goes up. She immediately boxes out DePaul’s Darrione Rogers, forming a wall between her and the backboard. Cochran then collects the rebound as it ricochets to the left, then calmly works her way out of a tough trap on the baseline before finding a cutting Evans down the lane for a quick score.

In the third clip, Cochran is down on the low block against Morris. She receives the entry pass from Smith, who then basically clears out the entire left side to give Cochran space to work. Then, in one polished motion, Cochran faces up and swishes the 16-footer—that’s what thousands of hours of repetition look like.

The fourth play shows Cochran’s passing skill, which is certainly more advanced than Shook’s was at this age (Shook averaged half an assist per game her freshman year). After the Cardinals force a turnover, Cochran fires a brilliant outlet ahead to Evans for her second assist of the game. Fluid, on target, with no hesitation; these are the flashes you want to see from your freshman recruits. Sure, it may have only been an outlet pass when the Cardinals were up 30, but in her third career game, it was significant to see from Cochran.

The last clip highlights her prowess on the glass as she rips down the board, then her technique on the putback as she fades away and banks in the jumper. Cochran finished the game against DePaul with 19 points and 10 rebounds for her first double-double, both career-highs. While she has yet to win ACC Freshman of the Week like Van Lith did, she will surely be in the running for the award all season. Cochran has been composed, aggressive, and reliable so far this year, and she’s only getting better.

Kianna Smith, the missing link that does it all

Landing Smith back in 2019 was a huge coup for Walz, to say the least. As a former five-star prospect, she made the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team and ranked fifth among all Division I freshmen with a 2.05 assist-to-turnover ratio. The following year, Smith honed her three-point acumen and controlled the ball much better, finishing with fewer turnovers on the season. She had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, but it was clear that she would be an impact addition the moment she stepped on the floor. The ACC’s head coaches agreed as she was named to the Preseason ACC Newcomer Watch List.

Last Friday night, Kianna showed why she deserved to be on that watch list as she torched the Blue Demons in her first appearance as a Cardinal.

She had 11 points in the first quarter, scoring from every level on the court. Look at the shot creation in the first clip, going with a stepback to free up some space and fire over DePaul’s Kendall Holmes. In the next play, Kianna shows off some nice handles in isolation, using a between-the-legs crossover to shift Bekelja and shoot over her while fading to the right.

The next two plays display her catch-and-shoot expertise from each corner. DePaul’s defense was disheveled throughout the game, and Kianna took full advantage of that; relocating from the baseline to the corner in the third clip and knocking down the three-pointer. In the next play, she shows her poise, utilizing the brush screen from Mykasa Robinson to get all the way to the basket and finish with a floater off the backboard.

Look at the velvety handle in the next play, how Kianna leaves Held stationary like a traffic cone after the stop-start dribble move to get to the rim—she went deep in her bag like there were fries at the bottom. Lastly, the next two clips illustrate the passing ability that she displayed quite often at Cal (4.8 assists per game her freshman year). We see the easy post-entry pass to Cochran and a silky bounce pass to Norika Konno. Kianna finished the game with six assists to only one turnover in a masterful showing.

Kianna had a fantastic game in the halfcourt offensively, but she was superb on the other end and in transition as well. Look at the first clip here as she tips an ill-advised pass from Held, then scraps for the ball with Morris before getting it out quickly to Cochran. 

In the next play, she grabs the rebound after Konno blocks a three-point attempt, then tosses the outlet pass to Van Lith for the assist. The following clip shows her active hands and defensive awareness as she deflects the kick-out pass from Rogers, then immediately runs the break. She slows down the pace and rewards Elizabeth Dixon for running the floor, tallying another assist on the stat sheet. Kianna was downright surgical in transition, finishing another layup with a numbers advantage.

The final clip highlights her play recognition as she abandons her matchup in the corner once she recognizes that Morris has freed herself up on the interior. Kianna slides over and swats the shot attempt from the weak side, before securing the rebound and drawing a foul. Louisville swarmed with 11 blocks and eight steals as the defense was sound throughout the night. Kianna had a complete game, finishing with 21 points, six rebounds and six assists, adding a block and two steals for good measure.

The Cardinals are now 5-0 on the season, after picking up a road win against the Duke Blue Devils in the conference opener. Van Lith, Cochran and Smith were sensational, each finishing in double figures with Olivia snagging her second double-double of the season. Louisville is now rising up the AP Poll, and the team looks even better with each authoritative win. Sure, conference play won’t be easy with NC State and Syracuse off to strong starts of their own. Nevertheless, based on what we saw last Friday night, and on the season as a while, the Cardinals look unstoppable. Dana Evans has been unreal, and with Louisville’s newcomers playing this well, they look like the team to beat. Let’s see if North Carolina can dash any hopes of a perfect season this Sunday at 4 p.m. ET.

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