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Bill and Russ’ Excellent Conversation: On the trail of college basketball’s $2 Million Man, while Elly De LaCruz outruns baseball’s Sophomore Jinx

By: Bill Doolittle and Russ Brown 

Photos By: Matt Johnson, Louisville Athletics & Keith Taylor 

BILL - Hey, Russ, good to talk with you, and I fully expect it’ll be about something other than the Kentucky Derby. That was a long haul for me. You know I started back last fall in New York, then was in Florida. I won a prep race in New Orleans and then the Blue Grass – and just missed winning the Kentucky Derby. But I’m pleased with the way I ran. And the good news is I got a good night’s sleep after the race and cleaned up my pancakes the next morning at Eggs Over Frankfort. 

RUSS – Whoa! I have feared for many years that this would happen and now it appears those fears were well-founded because you have talked about horses for so long that you have adopted the persona of one. I suspect that in this case it is another of your losing picks in the Derby, Sierra Leone. You’ve been talking about him all winter and now you’ve turned into him! Next thing you know you’ll be eating hay for dinner. 

BILL – Yes, Sierra was a Derby Pick I really loved. And even though he ran second in a three-horse photo, if folks followed my betting advice they cashed and maybe a won a little. You know, 2 with All in the exacta, and All with 2. 

RUSS – Maybe so. However, I’m betting that particular combination didn’t return enough to raise your standard of living. 

BILL – No, just lived to bet another day. (Dropping voice.) And, uh ... maybe we’d better go separate checks today. 

But now I am all ears to hear somebody else talk besides me. And I bet you’re going to tell me about that recruit Louisville lost the other day. The $2 Million Man. 

RUSS – Well, Pat Kelsey, the Cardinals’ new basketball coach, has done a good job recruiting a roster for his first Louisville team after every scholarship player from last year’s dreadful club entered the transfer portal, although there is still more work to be done. 

As of this conversation, he has ten commitments, three of whom played for him at Charleston. But two of those ten are going to redshirt for the 2024-25 campaign because they aren’t fully recovered from injuries suffered this past season. So Kelsey needs a few more to even have enough players to scrimmage during practices. I’m confident, though, that he will have more commitments by the time this is published. 

BILL – I do so admire your cool on recruiting, Russ. Some fans live their lives hanging on the latest whim from a prized recruit. The situation is serious, though, with a whole team that must be replaced – though I think if there ever was a chance to drop all the old ones off at the Greyhound station, this was the year to do it. 

But I still wish to know more about this $2 Million Man. I heard UofL stole him off Kentucky, but lost him when he demanded a clause in his NIL contract that he had to start every game – and other tales. C’mon, I know you know the true story. Give us the stuff. 

RUSS – The player you are referring to is Arizona big man Oumar Ballo, who was the No. 2 overall player in the transfer portal, according to 247Sports, which closely follows basketball and football recruiting and whose rankings I believe are as accurate as anyone’s. 

As you noted, Ballo was ready to sign with Louisville for $2 million, but backed out and committed to Indiana instead. UofL’s unofficial reason was that his parents demanded that he start the first game of his career and every game thereafter and Kelsey declined to give them that guarantee. 

However, the word from a major college recruiter paints a different picture. This coach insists that UofL did indeed initially offer $2 million, but then during his official visit lowered the sum to “only” $1 million. So Ballo said, “Goodbye Louisville, hello Bloomington.” 

BILL -- Oh, now I know who you’re talking about – that big bear of a guy from Mali, who played for Arizona last year, and Gonzaga before that. I’ve seen him in some late night games. Probably will help IU. But if I had 2 million Euros to go basketball fishing, I’d go after one of Arizona’s European players, like from Lithuania. Big guys who can shoot. 

RUSS – Ballo is a big catch. When 247Sports learned of his Hoosier commitment it boosted IU’s transfer class to No. 2 nationally. And guess who’s No. 1 -- yes, new Arkansas coach/ex-UK coach John Calipari is in a familiar position in the top spot. 

And speaking of Calipari, it’s safe to say that Wildcat Nation is eagerly awaiting his visit to Rupp Arena next season with the Hogs. New UK coach Mark Pope, by the way, landed the nation’s fifth-rated transfer class, per 247Sports. He landed eight commitments, all four-stars except one. UofL is rated No. 22, which is third in the ACC, behind only No. 20 NC State, whose haul includes former Cards Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Mike James, and No. 19 Duke. Remember, though, those rankings don’t include high school prospects, and UofL has just one – 6-8 power forward Khani Rooths. 

I hope that satisfies your recruiting curiosity, Bill. 

BILL --- More than enough, thanks. And didn’t the same thing happen across campus with Louisville football? A star running back who landed here, but then got bigger than his jock strap? 

RUSS – Yes, but I’m tired of talking recruiting. Let’s save that for July when it’s closer to football season. 

BILL – Moving on to the Summer Game, there’s an old baseball thing that when a club suddenly comes dashing out of the cellar with a bunch of hot prospects hitting on all cylinders and challenging for a pennant -- the next season usually isn’t nearly as good. I’m talking, of course, about the Cincinnati Reds, who surged out of more than a decade of mediocrity to suddenly race into contention last year, led by a carload of hot rookie prospects. The young Reds not only could hit, but they ran wild on the basepaths. A beautiful thing to see. 

But this season, Cincinnati has fallen on hard times. Or into a Sophomore Jinx. The hitters can’t hit. Like the whole team is trying to get under the Mendoza Line (a la Mario Mendoza, the journeyman shortstop who could field -- but not hit above .200). Three of the six rookies who came up from Louisville last season aren’t playing – with two injuries and a suspension. The Reds have ker-plopped back to last place in the National League Central. 

RUSS – Well, Bill, the Reds aren’t the only baseball team suffering through a slow season. The UofL baseball Cardinals have finished the regular season and are almost certainly going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. They were a non-contender in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. 

BILL – Yeah, but the college Cardinals have been too good for too long. I’m confident they’ll reload and bounce back next season. 

But going back to the Reds, my friend Ralph Haas, who takes a veteran fan’s patient view, notes that the Reds hitting problems are compounded by the fact that the team has been travelling all over the country playing the best clubs in baseball. “Just one after another,” says Haas. “A three-game series with Baltimore, which has one of the best records in baseball. And Seattle, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, all of which lead their divisions. Then Texas and Arizona, the two World Series teams last year. Then swing out to the Coast to play the Giants and the Dodgers. It’s tough to break out of a slump playing those kinds of clubs.” 

The hopeful news, says Haas, is the schedule changes as we swing into the summer, away from the top teams. 

And, while other Redlegs are struggling, Elly De La Cruz is flying around the bases. A stat I saw the other day had De La Cruz with 30 stolen bases in 44 games, which puts him on a numbers pace with guys like Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman, Lou Brock. The other night, after stealing second, the Dodgers let him steal third base in a close game. The third baseman didn’t even cover. The pitcher was so flustered he threw a wild pitch on his next pitch and Elly waltzed home. 

RUSS -- In closing, Bill, we would be remiss if we didn’t extend condolences to the family and friends of former UofL kicker John Wallace, 31, who died on May 15 of undisclosed causes. 

Wallace played for the Cardinals from 2012-15, helping them to four straight bowl appearances, including a win over Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, where he booted a pair of field goals in the 33-23 win over the Gators. 

A native of Elizabethtown, Ky., Wallace holds the school record with 66 field goals made. He hit 20-of-24 attempts during the 2013 campaign and helped the Cards to a school best 12-1 record. 


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