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Bill and Russ’ Excellent Conversation: Just a little more Basketball, then on to the150th Running of Kentucky Derby.

By: Bill Doolittle and Russ Brown

Photos by: Gulfstream Park, Keeneland

Collection, & VOICE-TRIBUNE

RUSS: Bill, while I know you are chomping at the bit to talk about your favorite four-legged “athletes” and a two-minute race that occurs in Louisville once a year, I am sure you are well aware -- though you may be loath to admit it to this hoops junkie -- that college basketball is a 24/7, 365-day obsession in this area.

Thus, before I let you swing the conversation to Derby 150, there is some unfinished business to address. Lots of it, actually, but since you will grouse if I try to dominate our conversation, I will limit my remarks to a bare minimum. Notice I said “try.”

BILL: By all means Russ. Give us the stuff on basketball. I remember basketball.

RUSS: The big news since we talked last month was the unsurprising firing of University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Kenny Payne after just two seasons. With a 12-52 record and acres of empty seats in the KFC Yum! Center, it would have been a shock if he had survived to stick around for the third year of his six-year contract.

Having known Kenny well since he played for the Cardinals from 1986-89, while I was covering the team for The Courier-Journal, I had mixed emotions about his dismissal. He is a good and caring person and an excellent role model who is always friendly and seems to wear a permanent smile. So I am sorry to see him go. But I recognize that athletic director Josh Heird had little choice, given the economics of the sport in today’s world and the lack of evident progress by the team. Too many double-digit defeats, too many head-scratching plays or non-plays. JJ Traynor (shoulder) and Dennis Evans (undisclosed medical reasons) might have made a difference had they been able to play the entire season, but it’s difficult to believe it would have been enough to save Payne’s job.

As we speak, UofL is involved in a search for Payne’s successor, and almost certainly has hired the new guy by now.

BILL: I think you are exactly right that the new man may already be tabbed. Payne was probably told he was done months ago, and negotiations with agents for new coaching prospects got underway. It’s been very quiet though. Louisville is probably not the destination it once was. I think the main thing is no announcement is going to be made while a new coach’s current team is still playing in the tournament. I’m just not certain who it is. I think we can take UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s name out of it. And I hear Florida Atlantic’s Dusty May is headed to Ohio State. But it might not be decided yet. Some young coaches have their teams playing super. I’d much rather go young, than fall for a retread. Over to you.

RUSS: May isn’t going to land in Columbus, Ohio because the Buckeyes promoted interim head coach Jake Diebler. Then May surfaced as a candidate at Michigan. My guess is that Louisville will either hire him or UCLA’s Mick Cronin, although, Josh Schertz at Indiana State or Eric Musselman of Arkansas was also a possibility at this writing. Scott Drew was Louisville’s first choice, but he took himself out of the running on March 19, saying he was staying at Baylor. I never thought UofL had a realistic shot at him. Just guessing that Drew’s decision had to do with a contract extension and a substantial raise. Why are you so down on Cronin? He would be a great choice, as I have said from the beginning. Impressive resume’ and an interesting personality that would keep Card fans engaged. You mentioned a retread, but I am having trouble getting excited about a coach whose entire experience at the high major level consists of a brief stint at Florida and whose head coaching resume’ lists five years at FAU and one fluky tournament run. Big deal.

BILL: You know everything!

As for Cronin, I remember his foul-mouthed personality. Other than that, he’s a peach.

And I agree you can’t promote a guy off one ‘fluky run.’ But, even if he’s not available, I like the Iowa State coach, T.J. Otzelberger, who just put on a ‘fluky run’ of his own at Iowa State. I’m sure you’ve seen the Cyclones passing the ball? A thing of beauty. But so many of those Plains States teams are passing demons, except Lead Shoes Iowa.

RUSS: By far the biggest tournament story around here was third-seeded Kentucky’s shocking 80-76 loss to No. 14 Oakland University (Rochester, Mich.), in large part due to 10 3-pointers by a former Division III player. Of course, Wildcat Nation had a meltdown and is furious with Coach Cal. UK had gone 26-1 between 1988-2019 in the opening round, but since then is 1-2 with losses to No. 15 and No. 14 seeds. The Cats haven’t won an SEC regular season or tournament championship since 2017 or an NCAA tournament game since 2019. But John Calipari isn’t going anywhere, even if many fans are eager to escort him out of Lexington. He has a “lifetime” contract and the school would owe him $33 million if it fires him. UK’s failures are certain to be rehashed frequently on social media and elsewhere until next year’s tourney.

BILL: Yes, sad for Kentucky followers, but continuing good news for fans of COLLEGE basketball. Each recruiting year, Kentucky manages to hire a limousine load of McDonald’s All-Americans, thereby holding them away from other schools. When the Cats collapse early in the tournament -- and maybe we should give skilled shooter Jack Gohlke and the Oakland Golden Grizzley’s some credit-- it’s POOF! away go all the one-and-done pro prospects, and the tournament continues with players who genuinely wish to compete for a national college championship. Works out great!

Now, on to spring, and the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby. And I’ll tell you, Russ, that the Derby is coming up as a good-old fashioned horse race -- with maybe four or five strong contenders -- and no ‘can’t lose’ wonder horse. Are you ready for some names?

RUSS: Glad you are handing out the bad tips instead of me, Bill.

BILL: The major Derby preps are being contested as the Voice goes to press, so we don’t know exactly who the big horses will be for the Kentucky Derby – EXCEPT, I think several of the favorites will do very well and march on to Louisville loaded with momentum. Trainer Brad Cox has Timberlake in the Arkansas Derby, and he’s pretty solid. If Timberlake wins in Hot Springs, he could be the Kentucky Derby favorite. In against tougher competition in the Florida Derby is Conquest Warrior. Shug McGaughey trains, with Jose Ortiz up. The Blue Grass Stakes, April 6, at Keeneland, looks like a two-horse showdown between Dornoch, trained by Danny Gargan, with Luis Saez riding, and Sierra Leone, from the Chad Brown barn, with rider Tyler Gaffalione. There’s a longshot from Ireland named Notable Speech, who is trained by Charlie Appleby and ridden by William Buick. If they fly him over, Notable Speech could be very sporty in the 150th Run for the Roses.

Going Back to the Blue Grass, Dornoch has a special cachet, in that he is a full brother to Mage, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2023. No siblings have ever won the Derby, at least through 149 years.

RUSS: I don’t wish to forget spring football. The University of Louisville football team is gearing up for its second spring intrasquad game under coach Jeff Brohm on at 7 p.m. on April 19 in L&N Stadium. The Cardinals started practice on March 19 with six of the 15 sessions open to the public. UofL returns 14 starters from last year’s 10-4 team that lost to Florida State in the ACC championship game, and Brohm added 24 transfers in a class that ranked among the best in the nation.

“We have a long way to go, but I like the makeup of our team,” Brohm says. “They’ve worked hard and have had a good offseason in the weight room up to this point.”

BILL: We also need to note the Louisville Bats home opener with Indianapolis on Mar. 29 at Slugger Field. The Bats enjoyed a very exciting season in 2023, marked by the rise of a slew of prospects that graduated to the Cincinnati Reds. We’ll scout the Bats new crop of up-and comers and report next month.

And in a true harbinger of spring, Keeneland opens April 5, with the Lexington track saluting the 100th running of the Blue Grass Stakes. The race was first contested in 1911 at the old Kentucky Association track (1828-1933) in Lexington, then picked up at Keeneland to head its first Spring Meeting in 1937. Fencing won it. To celebrate, the Keeneland Library has dug through its wonderful archive to produce a major exhibit commemorating the 100 years of the Blue Grass. The exhibit runs from April to August. Admission is free. The Keeneland Library was once located in the Keeneland Clubhouse, but now enjoys a beautiful home atop a grassy hill near the track.

Spring is springing!


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