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Bill and Russ’ Excellent Conversation: College Hoops

Welcome to VOICE-TRIBUNE’s new sports column, Bill and Russ’ Excellent Conversation. Each month, sports writers and longtime friends Bill Doolittle and Russ Brown will share their views and insights on various regional topics - from hoops and football to soccer, ponies and beyond. We hope you enjoy their banter as much as we do!

Bill -- Hey, Russ, nice tan. Looks like you enjoyed your Caribbean vacation. But you missed it here: Louisville won an Atlantic Coast Conference game against Miami. On the road. Against a winning team that went to the Final Four last year! And played solid basketball in the final three minutes — like a good team!

Russ -- Yes, Bill, I have a very nice tan, courtesy of the Caribbean. Really hated to miss that cold spell in your neck of the woods, though. Ironically, I was actually in Miami when the Cards played there. Kicked around the idea of going to the game all day, but decided not to because I knew it was going to be a blowout! Which explains why I am not doing well in my hoops pool.  The Cards are to be commended for upsetting Miami, but too bad they couldn't follow it up with a win over NC State at home, and so on. At least the crowd was bigger, and there was more energy and enthusiasm than I've seen in the arena since Kenny Payne took over.

Bill -- As discouraged as they may be, Cardinals fans notice that the quit has gone out of the team. But I'm afraid the best that can be hoped for this year is the players take a win here and a win there — when possible. Then change coaches. 

Russ -- I'm not as hard on Kenny Payne as you are, for a couple of reasons, one which has nothing to do with his coaching ability. I have known him since covering UofL throughout his career there. I like him a lot and I want to see him succeed. The most pertinent reason, though, is that he took over a train wreck that he refers to as a "mess.” Remember, the players he inherited from Chris Mack were the same ones who were so difficult to manage that Mack threw up his hands and quit his $4 million-plus job at midseason. Payne essentially had to take leftovers for his first recruits and he has had some bad luck with his second group, which was rated a top-10 class. Most notably, his most talented player, Trentyn Flowers, left for an Australian pro league before even attending a class, and promising freshman center Dennis Evans was sidelined with an undisclosed medical issue. Even with that pair gone, it's still a solid class with Ty'Lauer Johnson, Curtis Williams, Skyy Clark and Kaleb Glenn. So my hope is that Kenny gets a third year, but I'm not very optimistic about that actually happening.

Bill – Well, it HAS to happen. The thing is, Louisville hired a 56-year-old rookie coach last season, and this season he's a 57-year-old rookie coach. I think you are right about Payne straightening out the malaise. I imagine the school may have already worked out a nice severance package for him, with the athletic director looking through a tall stack of resumes, with the phone ringing off the hook with agents representing prospective coaches. They all have agents. My hope is they skip the retreads and find a sharp, young coach who — right this very moment — is guiding a smaller school toward an NCAA berth. A talented young coach with a special touch.

Russ -- Payne's buyout is $8 million that goes down to $6 million on April 1. I'm not sure why a rookie coach warranted such a large buyout, especially when the athletic department is saddled with hefty payouts to Mack and Bobby Petrino, along with millions in other obligations. I'm not in favor of hiring a young coach, who by that very definition wouldn't bring the experience of having guided a Power Six program that brings the spotlight and expectations of Louisville. Of course, you then have the problem of finding a proven coach willing to risk his reputation on rebuilding the Cards. 

As you know, my choice would be UCLA's Mick Cronin, who has had success everywhere he has coached  — as an assistant under Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and Rick Pitino here, and as a head coach at Murray State, Cincy and now the Bruins. He has been a head coach for 17 seasons and has been to 16 NCAA Tournaments, including UCLA's 2021 Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

Bill – I don’t care at all for Cronin’s sideline act. Besides, if he’s been to Murray, and been to Cincinnati, why would he leave L.A.? 

Russ -- Unfortunately, I guess it's time to quit thinking about Cronin if Payne is let go. Cronin told the LA Times that he wants to continue coaching the Bruins despite earlier remarks that indicated he was unhappy in The City of Angels. He criticized his players unmercifully and lamented his lack of NIL resources.

Bill – Wait a minute. Let’s back up. Did you say a $6 million buyout for Kenny Payne? Holy Moly! That’s why he hasn’t been fired. Nobody wants to admit the mistake they got themselves into. A $6 million buyout for a rookie coach! That’s a lulu!

Russ – It is a sad state of Cardinal hoops. My hope is that athletic director Josh Heird does a better job hiring a new coach if it comes to that than he has in managing the KP situation.

Bill – OK, Russ, let’s go on. Time to talk about GOOD teams. And for that I will bow to you as the preeminent college basketball authority. Fans can run and get their Bracket Buster notebooks. As they say in submarine movies: “You’ve got the conn.”

Russ — Not sure that compliment is deserved, Bill, given my sad performances in recent NCAA Tournament pools.

Bill — Don’t be modest, Russ. I know better. Spill.

Russ — Well, for what it's worth … The Big Dance can always be counted on to provide a wild time with plenty of upsets and buzzer-beaters, and this year may even be more unpredictable than most. As we head down the regular season stretch, my picks for the teams contending for the four No. 1 seeds  in no particular order  are UConn, Purdue, Kansas, Kentucky, Auburn, North Carolina, Tennessee and Houston, with Duke and Wisconsin as possible latecomers to the mix. The game of the season among that group will come on Feb. 3 when the Vols visit Rupp Arena.

Bill — I have heard these names before. Don’t you have …?

Russ — A Cinderella team? Of course. I like Samford, coached by Bucky McMillan. If nothing else, the Bulldogs' fast-paced "Bucky Ball" style featuring lots of 3-pointers deserves notice. We'll see how it all shakes out when March Madness gets underway March 19 after Selection Sunday on March 17.

Bill — You’ve also mentioned another 7-footer in Lexington.

Russ — Just what coach John Calipari needs: another talented 7-footer to enhance Kentucky's chances for a national championship. On the same day the NCAA finally cleared him to play, 7-ft. 2 Croatian Zvonimir Ivisic made a dazzling debut in a 105-96 win over Georgia in Rupp Arena. "Big Z", as he's better known, collected 13 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals in 13 minutes as well as blocking three shots and hitting 3-of-4 three-pointers. He joins Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso on UK's ridiculously talented roster, and I expect Calipari to often have two of them on the court at the same time. With freshman Reed Sheppard and other outstanding players on the perimeter and the wings.

Bill – I hear what you are saying about 21-feet worth of centers. But what I think makes Kentucky most dangerous is they’ve got all those 6 ft.7 guys who can shoot three-pointers. Sheppard knows who to get the ball to, and down go the threes.

Russ – I have to make the Wildcats my early pick for the title over Purdue and 7 ft.4 reigning Player of the Year Zach Edey. But for the first time Edey would be at a disadvantage with UK having 15 fouls to give in the low post.

Bill -- Did you get a look at my notes? I like Purdue, too. Edey is formidable, but when I saw the Boilermakers beat Arizona, the guy lighting up the floor was Purdue guard Fletcher Loyer. He looked like something right out of Indiana basketball lore. Shooting, driving, flying up and down the floor. You know Loyer is from Fort Wayne, and he’s just one of coach Matt Painter’s Hoosier Hotshot shooters.

Russ – Just one other note, that despite the men's team's struggles, Louisville fans still have a basketball squad to root for, because the women's team is enjoying another successful season. The Cardinals (16-3, 5-1) are still very much in the hunt for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. And Louisville fans appreciate their women. UofL's average attendance of 8,114 ranks in the top-10 nationally and during last month's winter cold blast, the Cards attracted nearly 9,000 on a 15-degree afternoon to see them play 4-12 Wake Forest. In January, ESPN Bracketology forecasted UofL as a No. 3 seed. But the Cards will face tough going the rest of the way, with seven of their remaining 10 games coming against ranked teams prior to the ACC Tournament March 6-10 in Greensboro, N.C. 

Bill – Who do you especially like on UofL, Russ?

Russ -- In past seasons under coach Jeff Walz, UofL has usually had a star, but this year he assembled an experienced, mature roster composed of talented transfers from smaller programs and other newcomers, melding them with a few returnees. They’ve developed camaraderie. 

After a game, senior Olivia Cochran told fans, "We haven't scratched the surface. Just be ‘patient y'all. We're coming. We're coming."

Bill – Off basketball and looking ahead to spring, I would like to note that horse trainer Bob Baffert has apparently told his Mr. Hotstuff attorney Craig Robertson to ‘take it on back to Texas,’ with Baffert and owner Amr Zedan finally ready to give up the ghost on a series of losing pharmaceutical suspension appeals in Kentucky courts to overturn the steward’s decision to disqualify Medina Spirit in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Baffert hopes to get un-barred to run his horses again at Churchill Downs and in the Kentucky Derby. I’m betting a bunch of his owners have, er, spoken with Baffert about getting reinstated. Which is a time-honored solution in horse racing. Rick Dutrow, the trainer of the 2023 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner White Abarrio, just came off a 10-year chemistry suspension. I don’t have any inside knowledge, but I suspect Bob Baffert will be back for the 150th Kentucky Derby.


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