Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Bill Self, Kansas, Michael Porter, Raul Mondesi and more

Mellinger Minutes Facebook Live: Sam on KU basketball, Raiders move, Royals and more

Sam Mellinger goes on Facebook Live every Tuesday to talk about his Mellinger Minutes column and answer more of your questions.
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Sam Mellinger goes on Facebook Live every Tuesday to talk about his Mellinger Minutes column and answer more of your questions.

Me: Hi everyone, thanks for stopping by! I’d like to have a reasonable conversation about Bill Self and Kansas basketball.

You, perhaps: Hahahaha, look at the word monkey sports columnist thinking he can have a reasonable conversation about this...

Me: Yes, well. I understand we’re supposed to either think he’s the greatest coach in the world for 13 straight conference titles or a choking dog for being 2-7 in the Elite Eight, but please, stick with me, just for a little bit.

You, perhaps: Whatever. Say what you want, word monkey.

Me: Thanks!

OK, first the good. Bill Self is the only coach to win 13 consecutive Power 5 conference championships, and that is such a difficult achievement that he may remain in a club of one until all of us are dead. It is likely true that Kansas could not have done this in the ACC (in certain years, Carolina or Duke have been better) or SEC (Kentucky), but it’s undoubtedly true that no other program could’ve done it in the Big 12.

Also, a comprehensive list of the active coaches to make more Final Fours than Self over the last decade:

Roy Williams, Hall of Famer.

Tom Izzo, Hall of Famer.

John Calipari, Hall of Famer.

That’s it. You will notice that Mike Krzyzewski is not on the list. He has made two Final Fours over the last decade, though he’s the only coach to win more than one championship during that time (Williams could join him this year).

Also, Coach K has failed to get out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend four times in the last decade. Calipari lost a national championship game to Self, and missed the tournament four years ago. Izzo has had seasons of 15, 12, and 15 losses in the last decade — that’s the same number of total losses in Self’s last six seasons — and hasn’t made it out of the first weekend in three years.

My point is not that Self is the best coach in the country, or better than any or all of the coaches listed above. My point is that winning like Self has won is incredibly difficult, and so is winning in the NCAA Tournament. It’s so easy to notice and focus on the negative. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the positives, and when you concentrate on one program, it’s easy to forget that others have holes, too.

You, perhaps: I’ve been playing Candy Crush for the last two paragraphs. Can we get to the part where you talk about him always losing in the NCAA Tournament to teams he should beat?

Me: Sure!

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self answered questions about Saturday's 74-60 loss in the Elite Eight to the Oregon Ducks at Sprint Center that ended the Jayhawks' season.

Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 1 seeds have made the Final Four 40.9 percent of the time. No. 2 seeds make it 21.2 percent, Nos. 3 and 4 make it around 10 percent each.

Self’s KU teams have been seeded No. 1 seven times, No. 2 three times, No. 3 twice, and No. 4 twice. Using our #math, you would expect KU to have made four Final Fours.

So, yes, they are two Final Fours behind what would generally be expected. What makes it harder for Kansas fans is that the losses often come with unflattering context. The 2010 team was the best in the country before being Farokhmaneshed. The 2011 team had the Morris twins and an open bracket before shrinking against VCU, and the 2014 team had Andrew Wiggins shrink against Stanford.

Self is the one working on a $53 million contract, so he’s the one who wears the blame and much of the credit. The nature of sports is that everyone is ambitious, and Kansas has more reason to be ambitious than most.

More should be expected there. Self not only understands that — he embraces it. He recruits to it. He promotes to it. This is part of what makes him good, and part of what makes KU such a consistent winner.

And when it goes the other way, it’s part of what makes it so disappointing. There should be room to recognize both sides of this — Self has built an astonishingly consistent winner, and a program that’s broken hearts at the end of the season more than it should.

Both can be true.

You, perhaps: Hahaha, hey word monkey, did you know the first part of your email address is smellinger?

This week’s eating recommendation is the spicy shrimp at Jarocho, and the reading recommendation is Alexandra Ossola’s Very Important Journalism: Why you’re better at beer pong after a few drinks.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and Facebook, and as always, thanks for your help, and thanks for reading.

I have no idea how to quantify this, but I do think there’s a chance that this is largely the simple notion that we follow Kansas basketball much closer than the rest of the country.

Just off the top of my head, I bet Kentucky fans are still mad about the Laettner game, and they just lost an Elite Eight game in which Malik Monk hit what sure looked like a shot to force overtime*.

* And Cal called Chop!

Duke lost in the first round two times in three years, sandwiched around a blowout loss in an Elite Eight game to Louisville in 2013, and lost two national championship games by a combined four points.

North Carolina lost last year’s title game on a buzzer-beating three-pointer, and Michigan State lost what some think is the biggest upset in tournament history last year. Northern Iowa had a historic collapse last year. Others have been embarrassed on big stages, like last year’s Oklahoma team in the Final Four.

Kansas has its fair share, of course. Some of this is the product of being so good so consistently. KU has more chances to be upset than most. But outside of KU fans, or people in the Kansas City area, I’m not sure KU is known for a string of “devastating” losses.

Upset losses, sure. But even that — as we noted above — comes with some qualifiers.

Keep in mind, too, KU’s two championships in the expanded bracket era came on one of the all-time underdog runs in 1988, and a three-pointer at the regulation buzzer in 2008.

It’s not all bad, is the point.

I’m not here to tell anyone how they should feel, or how they should cope, but I think the more time that passes from Saturday night the more realization there is that Kansas has a pretty badass basketball program. The end is a disappointment, on some level, for all but one team.

One thing that I don’t think has been talked about much (for obvious reasons) is that this KU team overachieved in a lot of ways. If KU made the Final Four, there would’ve been a case for this as Self’s best coaching job.

Frank Mason should get most of the credit for his impact, but Self — even if he got lucky in finding Mason — helped him develop from the No. 131 player in his class to the national player of the year.

Particularly after Udoka Azubuike’s injury, Self scrapped much of what he’s been running at Kansas for more than a decade, remaking his team largely on the fly. He was basically using a six- or seven-man rotation for much of the season, which meant adjustments to how they practiced and prepared, and still won the nation’s No. 2 RPI league by four games.

That’s pretty dang good.

Of course, the part of the season that people remember is the end.

A lot of things went wrong for Kansas in that game. Twenty misses on 25 three-point attempts. Devonte Graham playing one of the worst games of his career. Josh Jackson no-showing the first 30 minutes or so.

Landen Lucas being dominated, and, in a related development, Jordan Bell dominating the game. Tyler Dorsey’s stretch at the end of the first half, when banked and rattled-out-and-in three-pointers stretched a lead from five to 11 points. Oregon outplayed Kansas, and deserved to win, but it also had a lot of lucky bounces.

Anyway, a few possibilities, all with the caveats that Bill Self is a terrific coach:

▪ Jackson looked frazzled, even before the second foul. One of Self’s greatest strengths as a coach is knowing which player needs a boost and when. I kept thinking he’d call something to get Jackson a lob, but if he did it was too well defended to work.

▪ Too many wasted possessions, particularly in the second half, when Oregon basically quit trying to score. The matchup zone confused Kansas, and when that happens, it’s on the coach. There wasn’t enough aggressiveness.

▪ Little things, like, I remember out of a timeout, KU’s first possession was a post-up for Dwight Coleby against Bell. I don’t know how many worse ways to score were available to KU, but it couldn’t have been many. Coleby’s shot was blocked, easily, which is exactly how that possession deserved to end.

Now, all that said, there is a good chance that if KU simply hits a few more three-pointers — particularly in the second half — we’re talking about another Final Four matchup with North Carolina.

I don’t know how fair it is to blame a coach for a bad shooting night, but it’s worth noting that KU has hit just 17 of 68 (25 percent) three-pointers in its last three tournament losses.

You might remember that Mario Chalmers’ dad, Ronnie, was KU’s director of basketball operations during Mario’s four years at Kansas. Once, I joked with a staffer about that.

“He was the best ops guy we’ve ever had here, actually,” the man replied.

Me: Wait. Really?

“Yeah. Gave us Mario.”

Laughter.

The Porter package is a bit different, in a few ways, most notably that Michael Porter Sr. coached at Mizzou and Porter Jr. lived in CoMo. Also, Porter is the consensus best player in his class — even assuming it’s only for one year, it is not hyperbole to say his playing at Mizzou could change the program.

Newest Missouri men's basketball commit Michael Porter Jr. opened up about pressure and his desire to make Mizzou Arena thrive again Tuesday at the United Center in Chicago, where he will play in the McDonald's All-American Game on Wednesday eveni

Just for kicks, the last decade of Rivals No. 1 recruits and what they did in college:

KU’s Josh Jackson scored 16.3 per game for a conference champion that lost in the Elite Eight.

Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere was a reserve for a conference champion that lost in the second round*.

* Ben Simmons was a better player, but Rivals’ No. 2 player, for some reason. He went to LSU, and put in 19.2 per game for a team that missed the NCAA Tournament.

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor scored 17.3 per game and was the conference player of the year for the national champs.

KU’s Andrew Wiggins scored 17.1 per game for a conference champion that lost in the second round.

UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad scored 17.9 per game for a conference champion that lost in the first round.

Duke’s Austin Rivers scored 15.5 per game for a No. 2 seed that lost in the first round*.

* Kentucky’s Anthony Davis was the No. 2 recruit that year. He became the national player for the year on one of the greatest teams in modern college basketball.

KU’s Josh Selby turned into a DNP-coach’s decision for a conference champion that lost in the Elite Eight.

Kentucky’s John Wall was the SEC player of the year for a conference champion that lost in the Elite Eight.

Ohio State’s B.J. Mullens scored 8.8 per game for a No. 8 seed that lost in the first round.

K-State’s Michael Beasley was the Big 12 player of the year for a No. 11 seed that lost in the second round.

So, I don’t know. Porter’s situation at Mizzou will be more comparable to Beasley than Okafor, because he’s joining what is essentially a start-up instead of an established power, but we always talk about how one recruit or class can change a program.

I think pretty good.

Simmons’ time at LSU is largely looked at as a disappointment, and justifiably so.

But even with him doing everything — literally, he led LSU in minutes, shots made, shots attempted, free-throws made, free-throws attempted, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers and points — LSU went 11-7 in the SEC.

The league is better now than it was then, and I’d say that even if it didn’t put three teams in the Elite Eight and its third-place team in the Final Four.

I’d also want to see how the rest of the class shakes out. Jeremiah Timon, Kevin Knox, and a few others that Martin is working on could make a big difference.

One thing that’s interesting, to me anyway, is that I always thought Mizzou had a few nice pieces. You can win with Jordan Barnett, and Kevin Puryear, and Terrence Phillips. You just need more, and they probably shouldn’t be the best players on your team. Well, now Mizzou will have more, and those guys won’t be the best players.

I like Cuonzo. I like him for Mizzou, and I admire him as a man.

I think we all understand we’re irresponsibly early on all of this, but yeah, I think it’s 50-50 or better that Mizzou is at least .500 in conference play next year.

Dayton Moore and others have been saying this consistently, and sure, looks good:

Danny Duffy

Ian Kennedy

Jason Hammel

Jason Vargas

Nate Karns

Chris Young

Travis Wood

There could be another guy or two, most notably Matt Strahm, to help out at some point.

When Moore and others talk about the rotation depth, they are usually talking about the team that breaks camp, but the 2015 world champs had Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, the pre-Tommy John surgery version of Jason Vargas, and the good version of Chris Young start nine or more games for them.

That’s pretty good.

Some of the important stuff comes at the back. If you were to rank such things, I think this is as strong as you’d have felt in a long time about the Royals’ Nos. 5, 6, and 7 starters on opening day.

It’s a bonus, especially since the bullpen probably won’t be as good. But this group still needs a lot to go right, and I say that as someone who’s more optimistic than most.

I’m not surprised by a lot of personnel decisions the Royals make, but this one surprised me.

I know Mondesi has had a good spring, and he might be the best defender they have in the group. But he was so overmatched at the plate last year, and he’s still just 21, and letting him hit a little in Omaha could give him some confidence and provide the added benefit of potentially pushing his free agency back a year.

When spring training started, some within the organization viewed including Mondesi in the second base competition as a sort of courtesy. Put him in there, wait for him to fail, then boost his confidence in the minor leagues.

That never happened, because Mondesi has been good from the ump, but with others capable of holding the position down — it’s not like the Royals have to rely on him, especially early — I thought the job would go to someone else.

Whit Merrifield can be sent to the minor leagues without exposing him to waivers, and Christian Colon cannot. Particularly when we’re talking about a backup position, I’d expect that to be a heavy tiebreaker.

Cheslor Cuthbert appears on the good side of the roster bubble, and can back up three infield positions, so he’ll get some opportunities. Merrifield will probably be in the big leagues at some point, if for no other reason than for cover when injuries start to happen or guys need more days off.

Colon’s spot on the team is very interesting now. He may or may not be the Royals’ preferred backup second baseman, and he’s not the top backup at any other position, and he’s not as versatile as Merrifield.

Ned Yost on deciding between Christian Colon, Whit Merrifield for last roster spot 

If he couldn’t win the second base job now, here, with no options and an organization that wants to believe in him, you have to wonder when it will ever work with the Royals. He turns 28 in May, and has a career .666 OPS.

He may be the modern-day Dane Iorg.

I haven’t seen enough of Jorge Bonifacio to have a strong opinion on him either way, but I know that he hasn’t shown up on anybody’s top 100 prospects list in three years, and struck out 130 times in 134 games in the Pacific Coast League last year.

Orlando managed a .734 OPS in 484 big-league plate appearances in 2016, which isn’t bad, but for me the part that would seal it is he’s a better defender — and much better in center field than I thought he’d be.

That second part is important as Lorenzo Cain needs more time off his legs, because as fun as that was for a day or two, Alex Gordon is not your big-league center fielder.

Orlando was a better player than you’re giving him credit for here. His adjusted OPS last year was comparable to Addison Russell, Stephen Vogt, Adam Jones, Starlin Castro, and others. I’m not here to tell you he’s better than any of those guys, because he’s not. I’m not even here to tell you he’ll repeat those numbers, because I don’t know that he will.

But I do think he’s earned the chance.

I am, basically, going to hijack your question into one more rant about how this should be the year the Chiefs (finally) invest a first round pick in a quarterback.

To review:

▪ Alex Smith is good enough to win with in 2017.

▪ Alex Smith is not good enough to expect a Super Bowl.

▪ Alex Smith is under contract through 2018, but can be cut after the 2017 season for a cap savings of $17 million.

▪ You can do a lot with $17 million.

▪ This draft class includes several promising but raw quarterback prospects, each of whom would likely be best served with a year to learn.

▪ The Chiefs could give a draft pick that year, and privately, often brag about the strength of their quarterback room and coaches.

▪ Assuming they are right about that, their quarterback room and coaches would provide a terrific opportunity for a talented young quarterback to be his best long-term.

▪ The Chiefs have a very good team, with some minor needs like a playmaking tailback, inside linebacker, and blah-blah-blah. The biggest need, long-term, is a difference-making quarterback.

Ergo, the Chiefs should draft a quarterback in the first round.

I assume you’re referring to losing the national player of the year, a probable top-five pick, and what feels like growing discontent among some — some, because I don’t know how many — fans with repeated losses before the Final Four. I’m sure there’s part of him tired of the off-court drama, too.

And, well, I suppose there’s a case to be made there. Fourteen years is a long time with any job. Self turned 54 in December, and if you’re going to make a major jump like that, you’d probably want to do it before too long. It does make sense in some ways. He could leave Kansas tomorrow and be remembered as one of the best coaches at a program full of them.

I have these two strange and conflicting thoughts about Self and the NBA. The first is that he seems to have it in him to want to try it, at some point. He is a fiercely competitive cuss, completely obsessed with the sport, and intelligent about it on all levels. If nothing else, I could imagine him taking an NBA job with the thought that he wouldn’t want to regret not trying it, and knowing that he could always take another college job if it didn’t work out.

But my second thought is that he has such a good thing going at Kansas, he can’t be looking to leave. Even in what had to be one of the most difficult seasons to manage, he’s had nothing but support from the administration. He is well paid, and in a place that knows it has to do everything possible to support the athletic department’s only money maker.

If he stayed another 10 or 15 years, made a few Final Fours, won another title or two, they’d put his statue out front next to Phog Allen’s.

They won’t do that if he leaves for the Spurs.

No.

Martin is a terrific coach, and he deserves his success at South Carolina, but it’s also hiding the fact that the end was always coming fast at K-State.

I know it’s been said a few times, but the team he left was probably not going to be his team if he came back. Every year in every program there are kids who consider transferring, but I’ve heard enough different times from enough different people (including enough who genuinely like Frank Martin) to believe he was dealing with something extraordinary.

That part gets glossed over, and often it’s all dumped on the administration. John Currie, who did a lot of good for K-State, should’ve been better at working with Martin. But Martin was full of vinegar, too, and should’ve been easier to work with.

If he’d have stayed, and four or five or six players would’ve transferred out, his next job would’ve been a lot different than South Carolina and his perception nationally would’ve been a lot different.

Martin knew all of this, and my sense has always been that this is a big part of why he was looking to leave. Remember, the year before he left, he took the astonishing step of, basically, wondering to the Associated Press why Miami didn’t call him about its job, and blaming a misunderstanding about his contract.

There are different ways for that story to end, but it never ends with that coach being happy at the place he’s openly campaigning to leave.

I hate it for many reasons, and my sister living in Oakland is only one of them.

The Raiders belong in Oakland. They just do. There is a connection there between city and team that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and that I hate to see sold off.

The move to Vegas, between the relocation fee and private money required, is more expensive for the team than Oakland’s proposal to stay. We are also setting a new record for public financing given to a professional sports business run by a wealthy man, and I hate the idea that we’re OK with that.

I understand that tax breaks are often given to businesses, but I don’t know of tax breaks anywhere close to this big repeatedly given to businesses that every credible study shows do not come where close to making up for it in economic impact.

Oakland is doing the smart thing — the fiscally wise thing — and is being punished for it.

Sports are business, I get that, and I’m under no rosy misperception about why games start too late or why the NFL insists on these crap Thursday night games or why tickets are so expensive or why college football and men’s basketball coaches make embarrassingly more money when compared to professors.

But there’s something about the cold-blooded nature of moving a team — particularly in a foolproof setup like the NFL — to bilk a new city’s taxpayers of money that should be going to fix one of the country’s worst public school systems.

Did you know the $750 million in public money could’ve hired 7,500 teachers with full benefits? Or repaired all broken school equipment, with enough extra money build at least six schools?

I hate it, for so many reasons.

Also, as a happily married father of two, an NFL weekend in Vegas sounds obnoxious.

Deadline stress can get to us all, so I have sympathy for anybody whose story is due in 10 minutes and they need a quote and instead the question at the presser isn’t relevant to what they’re doing.

Now, that said, at least four important points here.

First, the whole exchange between the kid and Frank Martin took, what, a minute? Maybe less?

Second, the question was fine. It wasn’t the greatest question ever asked, but I’ve been to enough of these things to confidently say it’s top half.

Third, it’s a kid. Maybe relax a little bit.

Fourth, it’s a kid? Why is a kid up past midnight at a news conference?

The fourth is between the kid and his parents, and if they’re cool with it, I’m cool with it.

If nothing else, it’s much better than the NFL’s plant of a kid at the commissioner’s annual news conference during Super Bowl week, where the richest and most powerful sports league in the country uses a grade school kid as a human shield to break up questions about endless greed, chipping at fans every chance they get, embarrassingly overreaching punishments based on junk science, astonishingly empty brained handling of head injuries, and other relevant questions.

So, first, a disclaimer: I can’t read fiction. I just don’t like it. Can’t get into it. So this is going to be exclusively non-fiction.

On a vacation a month or two ago, I actually read three books. When Breath Becomes Air is absolutely one of the best books I’ve ever read. It hit me on so many levels. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Evicted is a strong, incredibly well reported look at the profit made from poverty in American cities. And Hillbilly Elegy was a fascinating look from a perspective that I don’t think is heard from enough.

I’d recommend all three.

The rest of my list is going to be dated, because I don’t think you’re looking for the other books I read these days, like Digger Dozer Dumper (which is great!), so here goes, a stab at my favorite books of all-time:

The Last American Man: Elizabeth Gilbert is much more famous for other books she’s written, and I’m sure they’re all great, but I read this more than a decade ago and still think about it.

Unbroken: I know this is an obnoxious thing to say, but it’s true: the book is a gajillion times better than the movie. Probably the best book I’ve ever read.

Friday Night Lights: A classic, and part of what made me want to be a sports writer. So, you know, blame Buzz Kissinger.

Where Men Win Glory: Could’ve chosen a few different Jon Krakauer books, but I liked how he approached this one. Truth in the face of a narrative we all wanted to believe.

Crazy For The Storm: I’m a sucker for father-son stories, and survival stories.

Steve Jobs: Such a well done biography about one of the most influential figures of our time.

Talent is Overrated: There are a lot of sociology books I dig, but this one stuck with me the most.

Thinking, Fast and Slow: This one’s good, too.

The New Jim Crow: A devastatingly well thought out essay about modern day civil rights.

Gang Leader For A Day: Caught onto this through Freakanomics, but such an interesting read, on a few levels.

Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life: One of the great sports biographies of all-time.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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