Louisville the latest stop on R.J. Evans' basketball coaching journey

R.J. Evans fondly remembers the first time he visited his new college basketball coaching home, Louisville's KFC! Yum Center.

"I was amazed," Evans said. "It's a great arena. ... I'm just grateful and blessed to have this opportunity."

Louisville is the latest stop in the Norwich Free Academy graduate's coaching career and his first job as a full-fledged assistant coach on the Division I level.

To say the least, it's been an interesting journey for Evans, who spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at the University of Texas prior to heading to Louisville.

Evans was hired last spring to be a program assistant on Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino's staff at Louisville. His former Holy Cross coach and mentor, Ralph Willard, who's a close friend of Pitino's, recommended that Evans make the move.

"It was an opportunity that was hard to turn down," said Evans, calling the decision a high risk but high reward move.

When a recruiting scandal rocked the college basketball world last fall, resulting in Louisville firing Pitino in October, Evans was left in limbo.

Evans and his fellow members of the coaching staff survived the tumultuous period.

David Padgett, an assistant coach and former Louisville player, was named interim head coach. He elevated Evans to acting assistant coach.

"It was tough during that time," Evans said. "Through all the uncertainty and unknown, especially the first couple of weeks with all the decisions that had to be made above us, we did a good job of sticking together," Evans said. "The five of us are still here now.

"We were fortunate. We've been working every day to be as successful as we can."

Evans is thoroughly enjoying working on Padgett's staff. He's considered the third assistant, with his duties including everything from recruiting, preparing scouting reports to serving as "special teams coordinator."

He's soaking up as much knowledge as he can.

Recently, Evans was back on home turf, recruiting in Connecticut.

"I like it a lot," Evans said of his job. "It's a great experience. I'm fortunate to have somebody that believes in me like coach Padgett. The other assistants help me out. Obviously, this is new to me. They let me learn and give me tips to push me in the right direction."

"... Coach Padgett gives assistant coaches ownership and a voice, which is great. We all have a voice."

Louisville has emerged from the early season turmoil to be contender for an NCAA tournament bid. The Cardinals are 18-8 overall, 8-5 and fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They host North Carolina in a key conference game on Saturday. R.J.'s parents, Ray and Deborah, are making the trip to Louisville this weekend.

Louisville held a press conference to announce the hiring of Evans, a Salem native, back in late October:

"R.J. is a very talented young coach with a great future," Padgett said in a story on the team's website. "R.J. has accumulated significant experience at his multiple stops, all which will be a great benefit to our players. He has built a great rapport with our players and earned their respect."

As far as what's next for Evans, he's unsure. His job status will be determined after this season ends. His long term goal is be a head coach someday. He also has earned two master's degrees.

For now, his focus is on the final five regular-season games and the conference tournament.

"We're just taking it day by day," Evans said. "That's all it is. Whatever happens, happens. That's the motto of our season. It's such a different situation. The biggest thing is we have 14 guys on the team that are a joy to coach and make our lives easier."

Evans continues to follow the UConn basketball team. He spent a memorable season (2012-13) playing for the Huskies as a graduate transfer.

He has faith UConn can turn it around.

"College basketball is a grind," Evans said. "You have to come to practice every day and work hard and execute the game plan. I believe in coach (Kevin) Ollie."

g.keefe@theday.com

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