The Kansas men’s basketball team won its 14th consecutive Big 12 championship, which means a reminder that sports fans are the best.
Sports fans are the best for lots of reasons, of course. They’re the best because they can be some of the nicest, most generous, caring, selfless people in the world and then lose their dang minds when a group of athletes they’ve never actually met wears a particular type of laundry.
But sports fans are also the best because they can turn anything into a debate. I’m reminded of this often, but always when KU wins another conference championship.
Because, come on. Fourteen? That’s amazing. There are 14-year-old basketball players being recruited by colleges right now. There are 14-year-old prodigies doing amazing science projects, and babysitting for neighbors, and driving themselves to school.
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Duke may or may not have the best men’s basketball program in the country. You have to go back to 1986 to count its last 14 conference championships. For Kentucky, you have to go back to 1984.
But, whenever this is mentioned, you tend to hear some variation of three responses:
▪ Four of those KU championships were shared so, you know, whatever.
▪ The Big 12 stinks so, you know, whatever.
▪ KU’s only made two Final Fours in that time so, you know, whatever.
This is all patently absurd. Even if you don’t count the shared titles, for some strange reason, no other program has won 10 of the last 14 in a major conference. The Big 12 is the No. 1 RPI league in the country this year and routinely in the top two or three.
KU absolutely should have made more Final Fours during the run. Nobody argues that, but I’m also not sure how that diminishes the accomplishment, and here’s another truth that seems blurred locally:
The gap in NCAA Tournament success between KU and other “blue bloods” isn’t as big as it’s sometimes made out to be.
If we take these last 14 years, Duke has made two Final Fours and won two national championships. Kentucky has four Final Fours and a national title. North Carolina has five Final Fours and three titles.
Kansas has two Final Fours and one title. There is no doubt KU is behind the others, but the narrative of the program as a constant tournament choker is a little overdone, no? Over 14 years, KU is even with Duke on Final Fours and one title behind. Even with Kentucky on titles and two Final Fours behind.
Everyone is behind Carolina and, besides, pointing out the absurdity of 14 consecutive titles is a very different thing that saying John Wooden can kick rocks or even that KU has had a better run overall than Kentucky or Duke or Carolina.
It’s a cool accomplishment, one that shows an amazing consistency in a sport that is inherently volatile. Also, Bill Self still needs more Final Fours.
Both things can be true.
But I genuinely appreciate that sports debates demand only one to be true. Don’t ever change, because in some ways, this is how my kids eat.
There is no middle ground here, because there seems to be no middle ground with Peters, but I’m going to answer your question as honestly as I can even thought it’s not the type of answer you’ll like:
I have no idea, and neither does anyone else.
This touches on a sort of pet issue for me, which is that all of us — I’m certain I do this more than I’d like to admit — paint with brushes too broad and we do it too often.
The Chiefs trading Marcus Peters is a terrific example, because I hate the trade, think it’s self-destructive for football reasons and gutless for other reasons, but I’m also well aware that many Chiefs fans are thrilled with the trade.
One left me a voicemail the other day saying he hasn’t watched, rooted for, or spent money on the Chiefs since Peters started to protest during the national anthem. This man says he’ll be back in the fall.
That’s an extreme example, perhaps, but there are many fans out there who are similarly happy Peters is gone and I won’t discount their voice just because I disagree with it.
If the question is whether the Chiefs have ever made a trade that generated more fan anger than this one, the answer might be no.
If the question is whether the Chiefs have ever made a trade that generated more fan joy than this one, the answer to that might also be no.
Peters came to represent much more than a football player, and that was true for many who love him and many who don’t, so the trade will always be remembered along those lines.
I hate the trade. I think the Chiefs have cloaked themselves with failure here, and that’s with the most generous reading, because it’s hard not to wonder if they were cowards and vindictive with it, too.
But, that’s just my opinion. I understand others disagree, and I also believe the world would be a better place if we all listened to each other a little more, so I’m not going to label this the most unpopular trade ever or the most popular.
Well, Terez reported it that the Rams and 49ers were the only serious suitors, so I believe that completely.
We can all take that information and make it fit whatever preconceived notions we had, and this is 2018 so that’s absolutely what many will do, but I believe some combination of three factors limited the number of potential trade partners:
▪ Peters would be a bad acquisition for a bad team. I’ve always thought this, that his obsessively competitive nature and occasional inability to keep his focus through team failures would make him a terrible player for a bad team. That would eliminate a chunk of the league, including bad teams currently run by former Chiefs leaders in Cleveland (John Dorsey, the GM who drafted him) and Indianapolis (Chris Ballard, who vetted Peters in Oakland and pushed the team to make the pick).
▪ Peters wants to be on the West Coast, and players have power in these situations. Alex Smith could direct where he was traded by saying where he’d sign a contract extension, and the same parameters would exist for Peters. As talented as Peters is, I can understand the reluctance to trade for a guy you believe you’ll only have for two years.
▪ Peters has baggage. He presumably wants a big second contract, and, again, as talented as he is I can understand the reluctance to pay a guy $18 million or so if you’re not confident how he’ll respond after he’s paid.
It’s hard to separate and isolate the protests during the anthem. That obviously impacted how many fans see him, and will impact how fans in his new city see him, though LA is obviously a much more liberal place than Kansas City both culturally and politically.
So, that’s all part of the package, good or bad depending on your perspective, but there’s enough else going on with this that I’d want to learn a lot more before comparing the lack of trade interest to Kaepernick.
Today is the day that I address pet issues, it looks like, because I believe this is another broad brush situation.
I won’t speak to Iverson or Olbermann because I’ve never been around either, but I can tell you that Ventura was disliked by some teammates and coachable to some coaches.
Humans are various shades of gray, and the more I’m around and get to know and write about humans for a living the more this guides my worldview.
Peters is, of course, a good example of this. Far too many people have attached their own biases to his career, and what I mean by that is a little nuanced so I hope you’ll stick with me here.
Many, many people believe the motivation behind the protests is critical our country’s future and far too long coming. In Peters they see a bold and courageous man willing to put actions behind his beliefs even if it makes his life more difficult at best. Because of all that, these people are far too eager to ignore Peters’ faults as a football player.
Many, many people believe the method of those protests is offensive and/or disrespectful to our country and military. In Peters they see a young man in over his head or worse, promoting a line of thought that’s destructive to our country. Because of all that*, these people are far too eager to ignore Peters’ faults as a player, and assume he’s a bad person.
*There is also, obviously, a significant racial element to this. That can’t be ignored, and shouldn’t, but I’m also not sure how to deal with that here. Not everyone who doesn’t like Peters is racist, and I hope we all agree that those who think that way should go play in traffic.
The end result is that Peters is sort of reduced to a vessel to carry whatever message we want carried, and the real truth and humanity is lost in the process.
I wish we could all be a little more honest with ourselves, and more accurately, I wish we could all be a little more open to those who disagree with us. Peters isn’t loved by every teammate in the locker room, and he isn’t hated by every coach on the staff. You could sub out Peters’ name for literally any other player in the NFL and the statement would still be true.
Peters became more controversial than any Kansas City athlete in recent history, and the debate around him long ago turned obnoxious.
I’ve written this before, but I happen to wish Peters and everyone else would stand for the anthem as long as the anthem is part of sports, but I absolutely believe in his and everyone else’s right to expression and non-violent social protest.
I happen to believe Peters is a fantastically talented football player, with an advanced level of understanding of his position, but I also think his reluctance to tackle went too far in 2017 and he too often lets his competitiveness turn counterproductive.
Maybe you disagree with some of that, or all of that, and as long as you come at it from a place of honesty it’s one of the rare debates that can actually have a positive influence beyond football and on how we see each other.
The sad reality is that like far too much outside of sports, the debate far too often turns into an exchange of talking points without listening, and the result is we all just continue to dig in on our preconceived notions.
The biggest difference, to me, is that Kelce showed growth here.
Kelce had a four-game streak of some sort of knucklehead moment, starting in 2016 with an unexplained suspension and unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and continuing with a taunting penalty in each of the first two games of 2017.
But, after that, Kelce was issue-free. You could put one of those workplace signs above his locker: 15 straight games without doing something dumb.
Judged strictly by his ability to retain focus, Peters just had the worst of his three NFL seasons. Even before the Jets game, when he threw the flag into the stands and walked off the field, his body language had become noticeably atrocious and his reluctance to tackle laughably obvious.
Maybe some of that was the pressure he felt from fans angry at the protests, maybe some of it was Eric Berry being injured. We can all play psychologist on that one.
But, the biggest different between the two — and I get why we’re doing the comparison — is that Kelce seemed to get better this past year while Peters regressed.
Now, Kelce will turn 29 in October and just finished his fifth season. Peters turned 25 in January and just finished his third season. When Kelce was Peters’ age he had almost all of his knucklehead moments in front of him.
Which brings to mind perhaps the second-biggest difference between Kelce and Peters: the Chiefs stuck by Kelce’s side and even gave him a $46 million contract extension.
With Peters, they hit the eject button.
One more time because it’s important: at the very least, the Chiefs made themselves worse because they failed at a central tenet of what they claim to be, which is a place that gets the best of players other coaches would describe as difficult.
The other finalists are Vegas, Denver, Nashville, and Cleveland/Canton, and my first impression of the finalists is that the league does seem open to keeping the draft in colder climates.
My assumption is that Vegas will get one of the years, just because I could see the league wanting to jump-start interest there, and the league likes a show so what better place for a show?
The Cleveland/Canton bid is interesting, and I adore Cleveland as a sports town, but they already have the Hall of Fame and the first preseason game every year. Denver has a terrific fan base and beautiful city, and Nashville comes with its own set of strengths.
But — and I want to stress, I’m just guessing here — I think Kansas City has a good case to make. I don’t know how much this matters, but the Royals’ parade two years ago gives the league visuals on what a stage and huge crowd around Union Station would look like.
Clark Hunt has seemed to give more than he’s taken from the league lately. He’s a league-first guy with a commissioner who loves league-first guys, and was the first owner who didn’t have trouble selling tickets to give up a home game to play internationally.
This absolutely is not how Roger Goodell thinks, but he did give the Chiefs a raw deal in the Jeremy Maclin tampering case, so something like this could be a nice political gesture on a few levels.
But, I don’t know. Those are five cities for two spots, meaning each would have a 40 percent chance on a level field.
My assumption is that Vegas is a strong favorite, my guess is that Cleveland and Nashville could be long shots, leaving Denver and Kansas City somewhere in the middle.
So, jeez, let me make up a number: 46.389 percent.
Well, the corny but honest answer is that it’s baseball. Baseball is always good. Days at the ballpark, summer nights with the game on in the background, the rhythms and comfort of a season.
I know it’s not for everyone, and obviously a number of fans who’ve arrived since 2014 are about to turn in their two weeks’ notice. Which is fine, of course.
But when the first thing you talk about with a baseball team is that they play baseball, you’re really saying the team is going to stink, sort of like when people ask, “Why would Don Mattingly want to coach the Marlins,” and the answer is, “It’s one of only 30 of those jobs.”
So, Royals specific:
Danny Duffy will pitch every fifth day, Sal Perez will catch around 162 games or so, Whit Merrifield could be a star on the rise, Cheslor Cuthbert will be interesting to watch, Alex Gordon will try to beat time, Jorge Soler has the most raw power of any big-leaguer the Royals have had in at least a decade, Jorge Bonifacio may have a bright future, Raul Mondesi could finally be ready for the big leagues, and there are some potential impact prospects such as Josh Staumont and Bubba Starling who could make their debuts.
That’s not nothing.
I’m normally a stay-at-home guy with these things, unless there’s a stadium or city you’re dying to go to and no offense to Wichita or the legendary Intrust Bank Arena, but I doubt that’s the case here.
Which means ... I say go.
Look, a bar in Kansas City might be the second best place to watch that game. Nowhere on earth does that rivalry resonate more than here, so particularly if you’re downtown, or in Westport or on the Plaza, you’re going to get fans on both sides and all the beautiful tension that comes along with that.
But that’s not going to be the same as what’s happening in that arena, or, quite notably, outside that arena both before and after the game.
Being there means you’ve inherently raised the stakes of your fandom, and the importance of that game, because nobody wants to be wearing the sweatshirt of the losing team at the bar afterward.
I haven’t been to that particular arena — it’s not where Wichita State normally plays — but it’s relatively small when compared to other sites, so I’m guessing the seats would be good and the place rocking.
Normally with NCAA Tournament sites you have to grade the atmosphere on a curve. There’s something a little stale about neutral-site games, and the tickets are divided among four schools. But I just can’t imagine that those hurdles wouldn’t be cleared for the first real Border War game in six years and the first ever in the NCAA Tournament.
Man, this is tough.
I think he will, and he deserves it, but I also think he’d be a little out of place next to Frank Mason or Thomas Robinson or Paul Pierce or Danny Manning.
Does that make sense?
Let me try to explain. Graham will probably — he should, anyway — be the conference player of the year and that should be enough in a sport as transient as college basketball. He is a four-year player in a time when those are rare, his calm and guts helped continue an absurd streak of conference titles, and depending on how the rest of the season goes he could get to 12th or 13th all-time in points.
As it stands, he’s already ahead of Wayne Simien.
But if he does get the honor, there would be a case that he’s toward the bottom of the list, that he just cleared the bar, if that kind of thing matters to you. He was never the best player on the team until this year, and even now that title could’ve been debated at various points with Svi Mykhailiuk.
Does he really go up with LaFrentz, Valentine, White and Chamberlain?
One more time: I believe yes, but understand the counter.
This jersey retirement thing has become a bit confusing. Like most things around KU, it’ll be Bill Self’s decision.
I have no idea. This had to be the year. Had to be. Bob Huggins, Lon Kruger, Chris Beard, Scott Drew, they all have to be so annoyed. I always figured KU would share the league title, but they’re going to win it outright, and perhaps by two or three games.
Isn’t just the factors you mention, though they are all legit. There were so many games the Jayhawks could’ve lost, even some you could argue they should have lost: at Texas, at TCU, K-State at home, both West Virginia games, Baylor at home, at Texas Tech. That’s six right there, a full third of the conference schedule.
Also, Keenan Evans is Tech’s best player. He gets hurt against Baylor, Tech loses for the first time in eight games. By two points. He tries to play the next game, but he’s clearly limited, re-injures the toe, and Tech loses again. Then comes Kansas, with five full days of rest after a rare easy win, and Evans is still slowed by the injury. KU wins by two.
What if Evans never injures that toe? Does Tech beat Baylor and Oklahoma State? If so, Tech is 12-4, still tied with KU at the top of the standings. If Evans is healthy, is that also the difference in the game on Saturday? If so, now Tech is 13-3, a game up on KU and a sweep in the season series.
KU is good enough on its own. Self is the league’s best coach, Allen Fieldhouse is the league’s best home-court advantage, there is a culture around the program that can feel at times bulletproof. On and on we could go.
It is difficult enough to beat KU.
But when KU also gets some breaks like that, completely out of their control, it can feel impossible.
There are so many different things you could point to in explaining the streak. Self’s knack with player development is among the most critical, because if Graham wins the award this will be the second consecutive season the Big 12 player of the year is a KU guard who didn’t have much interest out of high school.
But they just make it feel like everyone else has to be perfect. You know KU is going to execute in the final minutes, you know they’re not going to panic, you know they’re going to find a way to get along without Billy Preston.
It really is remarkable. I know people like to throw stones at the streak because Self should have been to more than two Final Fours, but come on.
It’s true that KU could not have won 14 consecutive conference titles in the ACC or SEC, because there have been years that Kentucky or Duke or Carolina have been better. But it’s also true that those schools could not have done 14 straight in the Big 12, because they’ve all suffered the down years that seem to be inevitable for every program in the country but KU.
Well, it’s going to turn 15.
Graham and Mykhailiuk are seniors, and perhaps Udoka Azubuike will enter the draft* but KU will have the Lawson brothers and Charlie Moore eligible off transfer, and the No. 4 recruiting class in the country according to Rivals**.
**Five-star guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson, four-star center David McCormack, and three-star guard Ochai Agbaji from Oak Park. Texas (No. 15) is the only other Big 12 school in the top 25.
After that it’s anyone’s guess, but here’s mine: the streak ends the year after Self leaves.
ESPN’s bracket on Monday had eight: Baylor (first four), West Virginia (4), TCU (6), Kansas (1), Texas (first four), Oklahoma (8), K-State (10), and Texas Tech (4).
That’s the whole dang league except for Oklahoma State and Iowa State, neither of which have a chance.
Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma have uninspiring cases, though I suppose Oklahoma will make it, and I’d make a case for Baylor — the Bears have played a really tough schedule, and depending on what you think of playing in Ames they have more than one bad loss.
Texas’ best wins are against Tech and Butler, but UT is now at five losses in seven games with an injured Mo Bamba, and if that turns into six of eight and then a round-of-eight loss in the conference tournament I’m not sure anyone would make a passionate case for them to make the cut.
So I’ll say seven.
As with everything, this depends on how you look at it.
The league is first in RPI, and I would challenge you to find a league stronger in the middle and the bottom. The Big 12’s worst team is ranked 98th by KenPom, as of Monday evening. Just two teams were outside the top 50.
The ACC’s worst team is ranked 237th, and five are outside the top 50. In the Big 10, the worst team is 161st and six are outside the top 50. In the SEC, five teams are outside the top 50.
If we’re being technical about it, I believe “best league” is the best overall league. I believe the bottom matters, because you don’t get layups. I believe “best league” and “hardest league to win” are two different things in that way, though I know we’re getting into semantics here.
This is where a lot of the Big 12 Sux talk comes from. The league typically lands a lot of teams in the NCAA Tournament, but very few (none?) in the Final Four. There’s a lot of depth of good teams, but too rarely many great teams.
The Big Ten has two teams that might be better than Kansas — Michigan State and Purdue. The ACC has three — Virginia, Duke, and UNC.
All five of those teams are ahead of KU in KenPom, anyway, and most people tend to judge a league by the top.
That’s totally fine, and legit, and “leagues should be judged overall by depth” is not an argument I’ll make with a lot of passion.
The point is, I believe the Big 12 is the best league in the country if we’re defining it by depth, and yes I understand the SEC won the conference challenge.
But I also don’t know what the point of this argument is, why it matters, and understand the Big 12 will remain easy to knock until it gets more teams to the Final Four.
I only get one? Because I want to keep a lot.
I want to keep good relationships with my kids. I want to keep interest and fun and depth in my marriage. I want to keep a job I love, friends I want to see, interests outside of work, so many things like that. I want to keep a goal of writing a real, reported, my-own-idea-put-into-hardback book.
But I don’t think any of that is the spirit of your question.
If I’m answering what I believe is the spirit of your question, I just want to keep some semblance of agility as I get older. I want to be able to lay on the floor and get up from the floor with relative ease as long as my kids are playing on the floor.
I want to be in good enough shape to play chase with them now, and basketball or baseball or whatever with them later. I want them to see me as fun, as relatively active, and to remember that I never told them no when they asked to play — whether as a jungle gym or a pitcher or a rebounder or whatever.
That’s what I want.
You guys, that was fun, and it was cool for Danner and Julie Weeks to think of me that way. I am a capital J Journalist, and I cannot be bought, but I did appreciate a bottle or three to take home and hope I paid it back with a make-your-own-sixer from the beer hall*.
*Two Dark Truths, two Bourbon Barrel Quads, one Bully Porter and a Tank 7.
They’re good people there, they make great beer, and I appreciate that they’ve stayed locally focused and innovative after they sold.
Also: that may not be the last random and very cool beer-related thing from me this spring and that, my friends, is what they call a teaser.
This week, I’m particularly grateful for tax returns. My goodness, what a difference. My wife and our oldest son have birthdays in February. Our anniversary is in February. Christmas wasn’t too long ago. This is the time of year I always worry we’re going to have to move in with my dad and eat rice and beans and then we get our tax return and I think we might actually make it another year after all.