Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Big 12 chaos, Royals as contenders?, Chiefs coaches, and more

Bruce Weber on K-State Sunflower Showdown win over KU

Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber talks about the Wildcats 74-67 win over the Kansas Jayhawks on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.
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Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber talks about the Wildcats 74-67 win over the Kansas Jayhawks on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Maybe it’s more of a soap box derby than a NASCAR race but the Big 12 basketball season is as interesting as it’s been in a while. The quality at the top isn’t going to inspire documentaries, but the competition is fierce and the stakes compelling.

K-State, built around one of the program’s best ever senior classes, is a 5-3 finish away from likely winning the league title outright and knocking off its arch rival from the top for the first time in 15 years.

Kansas, with its injuries and investigations and Hall of Fame coach, is two back in the loss column with a flawed roster but a truckload of institutional swagger.

Three more teams — including Texas Tech and Iowa State, who still might be the best two — are even with KU in losses.

At this moment, KenPom projects a three-way tie between K-State, KU, and Tech. K-State is a three-point underdog at Texas on Tuesday night, and if it’s an exaggeration to call this the Wildcats’ biggest game of the season, they would take a significant step toward that league title with a win.

Here’s a guess on how it’ll turn out:

K-State loses at Texas, at Kansas, and at TCU, and one game you wouldn’t expect — Baylor at home, maybe. That’s a 12-6 finish.

Kansas loses at Tech and one game you wouldn’t expect — at Oklahoma is a good guess. That’s a 12-6 finish.

Tech loses at TCU and at Iowa State. That’s a 12-6 finish.

Iowa State loses at K-State and at TCU. That’s a 12-6 finish.

That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway. Chaos.

This week’s eating recommendation is the tandoori chicken at Taj Palace, and the reading recommendation is Brad Schmidt and Jeff Manning on how Adidas bankrolled a black market for basketball recruits.

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

Better.

K-State was not included in the official-ish bracket preview over the weekend, which would indicate the Wildcats are no better than a No. 5 seed but a few things to remember:

Today is Feb. 12. Come on.

The reveal happened before K-State won at Baylor.

K-State has lost one game (out of conference) since Jan. 5. There’s some real momentum here, and a strong finish would almost certainly push them into a top-four seed.

College basketball seasons are volatile. We’ve seen KU left for dead, and then win the Big 12. A year ago, Oklahoma was No. 4 in the country in mid-January and out of the NCAA field completely in March.

K-State is inherently capable of closing out an outright Big 12 championship, but the schedule is also difficult enough — at Texas, Iowa State on Saturday, at Kansas and at TCU still to go — that a slide down to a No. 8 or so seed is also realistic.

So this really comes down to trust. Do you trust K-State? Reasonable minds can disagree, but I do.

I believe Bruce Weber is a very good coach. I believe his roster is terrifically equipped to navigate this apart of the season, with a strong senior class plus junior Xavier Sneed and (redshirt) sophomore Cartier Diarra, if he returns from injury.

I believe that for all the frustration that can come watching the occasional offensive drought, their defense is fairly consistent, and they’re smart enough to figure out how to get the right shots eventually.

We’re getting into some nuance here, so please don’t take this as a #hottaek slam, but it’s a testament to the Big 12’s inability to knock KU down.

Two things can be true:

Kansas would not have won 14 conference titles in a row in, say, the ACC.

Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky would not have won 14 consecutive Big 12 titles.

The Big 12 has been remarkably consistent over the years. The league has fielded more than its share of good, NCAA Tournament-quality teams. That’s why the league is routinely ranked first or second in RPI (first again this season).

The league has also fielded less than its share of legitimate championship-caliber teams. That’s why only four of the last 40 teams in the Final Four have been from the Big 12.

Consistently good, rarely great. That’s the fair description of the Big 12.

Now, you’ve probably heard me say that optics are more important in college sports than most other places in the world, which means the league is in a weird spot. Because KU’s streak has long been a bad look for the league overall — like, really? Fourteen years and nobody can make them finish second? — but if the streak is broken because Udoka Azubuike’s wrist blew up and because the NCAA went overboard on Silvio De Sousa and Quentin Grimes didn’t play up to his recruiting ranking, then that might be an even worse look.

But, really, a four-way tie at 12-6 would be pretty dang accurate for what the Big 12 deserves. It’s a strong league, but one without a great team.

That’ll be the number, by the way: 12-6.

K-State is best poised to make it to 13-5, and a win at Texas would go a long way. But that’s a tough test, and I assume they’ll lose at Allen Fieldhouse, and they also have Iowa State at home and at TCU.

One of the best stats in the Big 12: Bruce Weber is the only coach other than Bill Self to have a Big 12 conference championship.

Well, first, of course you should read Vahe.

But I’m not taking the proclamation of the Royals as a 2019 AL Central contender seriously, and you shouldn’t either.

Dayton Moore cares deeply about perception, and about connections with fans. He cares about these things beyond the job description and beyond some hollow marketing gimmick.

He cares from the bottom of his heart about the strength of baseball, not just in Kansas City but around the country and the world. So there is a message to his team and coaches here, that rebuilding is done, that you’re now tasked with winning major-league baseball games but there is also a message to fans here.

I don’t think that Dayton sincerely expects the Royals to win the division. I do believe he thinks it’s important to send this message, though.

We could pick apart the roster a bit to make the point, but here’s a quick little game. Let’s compare the projected lineups of the Indians, heavily favored to win the American League Central, and the Royals, generally picked to finish fourth or so.

I’m going to get a little nerdy here and include each man’s (Steamer) projected wOBA. You don’t have to know how it’s calculated. Just know that it’s a bit of a catch-all stat and, generally speaking, .320 is average, .370 is very good and .400 is elite. If you’re below .290 you’re very bad.

OK, names and numbers:

Francisco Lindor, .366.

Jason Kipnis, .316.

Jose Ramirez, .375.

Carlos Santana, .354.

Jake Bauers, .329.

Greg Allen, .293.

Tyler Naquin, .316.

Leonys Martin, .303.

Roberto Perez, .292.

Now the Royals:

Adalberto Mondesi, .311.

Whit Merrifield, .320.

Alex Gordon, .304.

Sal Perez, .316.

Ryan O’Hearn, .316.

Jorge Soler, .335

Jorge Bonifacio, .303.

Hunter Dozier, .296.

Billy Hamilton, .283.

That’s a mismatch. The Indians have three hitters projected to be far and away better than the Royals’ best. The Royals have just one player above average.

Now, we can quibble with these numbers. Mondesi was at .341 last year, so this is a major drop, and Merrifield is better than average.

But the point remains that there’s a big gap in the production of these teams. The Indians have stars. The Royals have hopes. And the Indians’ biggest advantage might be in the rotation, with Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger.

Look, I don’t have a problem with the Royals being ambitious. They should expect to win, and I think they’re on the rise. They will be ridiculously fast, and that’s something they should talk about.

But you still have to hit, and it’s still true that a .500 record would be a resounding success, and put them ahead of schedule.

Let’s cool the division championship talk until at least July.

This will not be the last time I say this: Adalberto Mondesi is the most physically gifted Royals player since Bo Jackson.

You know I don’t say that lightly.

Carlos Beltran was more graceful, Eric Hosmer more polished, and Lorenzo Cain more fluid.

But none of them had the speed-power combination as a switch hitter. Beltran came closest, but Mondesi is faster and possesses more raw power.

This could be a superstar on the come, then, the rare talent who can win games with his glove, arm, speed, bat, or power. Moore has been making a Patrick Mahomes comparison both publicly and privately, and the truth is that’s as much to give Mondesi confidence as it is to make any larger point.

When you follow one team, or teams in one city, you just don’t get a lot of opportunities like this. Mondesi is Francisco Lindor without the plate discipline, basically, and assuming good health he will provide some spectacular moments this season.

Mondesi is the most important player on the big-league roster, the one best positioned to be a star on the next contender, but he’s also the one most likely to give you a moment or two worth your night at the ballpark.

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost was impressed with the progress that Adalberto Mondesi showed in 2018, and Yost expects that to continue with the 2019 season.

A win total of at least 70, and probably closer to 75, with visible and obvious demonstrations of progress from Mondesi, O’Hearn, Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Jorge Soler, Jorge Bonifacio, Hunter Dozier, and Jakob Junis.

Dayton Moore originally said he thought 2019 would be the worst year, but plans are fluid, and even if the Royals aren’t quite good enough yet to be judged solely by wins and losses it’s hard to imagine them being anything close to a success with a loss total in the mid 90s or higher.

This is still a group that’s more about the future than the present, so that’s why the guys mentioned above are either young or the product of long organization investment.

I’m leaving Merrifield out of that group for two primary reasons. The first is a compliment to him, because he’s to the point now where it’s fair to expect a high level of production. He’s not going to lead the majors in hits and steals all the time — he might not even lead his team in steals this year — but he’s diversely skilled, hyper competitive, and possesses the kind of swing that should be relatively bust-proof.

O’Hearn and Soler are particularly interesting. The Royals are obviously building more for speed, but those two are capable of 60 homers between them if things go right. Even for an organization that wants to zig while others zag, you still need to have some power, and big-time home run hitters are out of the Royals’ free-agency budgets so this is probably their best shot.

This is a reference to the Kareem Hunt news, and I do hope you read my column on it, but for now let’s put all of that aside.

Hunt has a second chance here. This is not a gift, but something he’s earned because his talent outweighs his cost. I do believe Cleveland is the absolute WORST place he could go, because the same influences that at the very least greased the rails toward trouble will now be more constant and accessible than ever.

But I do hope he makes the most of this.

I hope he has enormous success, and earns enough money to live a happy life and help those he loves.

I hope this for a lot of reasons. Some of them are obvious — we should all hope for the best, right? We should hope that our lives are not defined by our worst moments, and that Hunt finds the perspective and motivation to not only reach out to the woman he kicked in that hallway if he hasn’t already, but do his part to promote a higher version of masculinity — one that uses strength to help, not harm.

But mostly I hope this because it’s his only chance.

Athletics at the major college level and above will always use athletes. That’s how the system is set up. The athletes are used for their time, their gifts, their entertainment value. They are paid as little as possible — with scholarships and stipends in college, then a salary structure that favors the few who can make it to free agency in the pros.

Particularly with football, their bodies are used and battered and never again the same.

That’s what they sign up for, and this is not a call for empathy, because that would be silly and illogical.

It’s a call for the athletes to understand the stakes, and that the only way it’s a good deal for them is if they can also use athletics.

At the college level, that means networking. It means building connections, of using your status to form relationships or create opportunities that will help you in real life.

In the pros, that mostly means money. That means being good enough to earn that second contract, because that’s the one that’s going to determine how much juice you get from the squeeze.

This is particularly important for Hunt, because he has a reputation to get back. The story has not yet been written on him. He can be the guy who punked his way out of professional football, or the one who grew up, who learned to not turn any combination of conflict and alcohol into violence.

Regardless of how the rest of his career goes — and he’s so talented the playing part shouldn’t be a problem — his life after football will be immeasurably effected by his ability to avoid trouble.

If he does that, he’ll have a career and a positive place in this world no matter what.

If he doesn’t, this is going to be one of the saddest football stories of the 21st century — there’s nothing emptier than potential unfulfilled.

Hunt’s path to doing that is complicated, though, because no expert would advise the context he is now in: zero tolerance, high-profile so quickly after being released, and back full-time in the place where the trouble has stemmed.

In other words, he’s back in Cleveland because football isn’t done using him.

Now it’s up to Hunt to make sure he uses football, too.

I believe that a whole lot of life and the world can be explained through sports, but the first thing is we have to agree that a whole lot of life and the world is messy.

Roy Hobbs was a made up character.

You hear sometimes that sports build character, and that sounds good, and it’s something that high school coaches should tell their kids, but the truth is that sports (like money) don’t build character as much as reveal it.

In theory, the NCAA can serve a noble purpose. Protecting student-athletes is a cause worth pursuing. You might know my stance that athletes should be able to make money off their likeness but that academic fraud should be taken very seriously.

So I’m all for the NCAA looking into what happened at Mizzou, but the punishment is so far out of reason that it becomes laughable. This was one tutor gone rogue, a story that surfaced after she essentially wanted debts cleared or else. Mizzou played everything by the book, from start to finish, and still took a massively overreaching penalty.

The lesson there is that sometimes bureaucracies lose sight of what they should be.

The Hunt signing ... again, he was always going to get a job. That an NFL team signed him is as predictable as the fact that tacos will sound good to me tonight. I wrote this in the column, but if there’s a lesson there it’s that if our value to our employer exceeds the cost of our employment we will have a job.

We want sports to be fun and breezy, but they are often raw and uncompromising. That’s part of the deal for those of us who spend way too much time and energy caring about kids games.

We watch for the highlight or the moment or to see our team win, and we’re often left debating moral stances or following court cases.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have. I’m not ditching sports to follow politics full-time, and I would advise you to do the same.

Well, this must be one hell of a linebackers coach.

You might’ve seen the report from Kentucky that the situation changed again, and that Matt House will now leave his job as defensive coordinator there to be the Chiefs linebackers coach.

This is all bizarre, but the way it should have ended.

If the Chiefs were indeed taking a stingy stance on his buyout, it’s an easy play for Kentucky to keep their guy unless the contract is bought out.

If desperate isn’t the right word, the Chiefs are operating with enhanced urgency, knowing they were a whisker from the Super Bowl. If they believe House — who is essentially replacing two men — can help them find one more inch then $150,000 is a small price.

This is the only way it should have ended, too. Everybody loses if House stayed. The Chiefs, most obviously, because they’d have been down to their second choice and everybody would have known it. House would’ve been in a job he did not want. And Kentucky would’ve had a defensive coordinator everyone knew wanted to leave, so good luck with morale and recruiting.

All that said, you guys, House will be the linebackers coach, not the starting quarterback.

I get that this is good for the Chiefs, and if House is as strong as his reputation then it sure sounds like a good hire. But let’s hold off on the parade is all.

I dig it!

There is so much irrelevant, small-audience, niche-of-a-niche sports product on TV you cannot possibly with a straight face say there isn’t a prominent place for a secondary professional football league.

I’m enough of a nerd that I grew up watching the Arena League on ESPN2 — shoutout Barry Wagner — and have always been a little surprised that there wasn’t a more traditional league available.

This one has a chance to thrive where so many others have failed. It has a loose connection with the NFL, and seems built on winning with innovation but also providing a game that looks as close to the NFL as possible.

I like the shorter play clock. I love the cameras in the replay booth. I hope the NFL adopts the 4th-and-12 onside kick replacement.

The AAF seems to be comfortable with its place — this is where NFL fans go to get their spring fix after the Super Bowl.

The XFL will begin next year, and among other differences apparently will be going after college players who are not yet eligible for the draft. That could be a major shift in how these leagues are run, and prompt a response from the NFL.

This thing might have legs, and in fact...

...I know you’re joking but I think the NFL should continue this loose connection with the idea of a more formal partnership down the road.

The best outcome might be to merge the AAF and XFL, creating a total of 32 teams with each one serving as a farm club for an NFL organization.

Who would be against this?

The Chiefs partner with San Antonio, for instance, and the Commanders run an innovative offense heavy on screens and an aggressive 4-3 defense. There would be some player safety concerns that would have to be addressed, but maybe you send Chase Litton down there for some snaps, or Khalil McKenzie to learn a new position.

The lower league would benefit from a built-in audience and pipeline of talent, and NFL teams would have more options.

This should happen.

Dude. All the time.

Cartier Diarra’s dunk is a good recent example. That was a moment that mattered to everyone in that building, both in micro and macro, and if you weren’t moved by the spontaneous joy and — I mean this literally — eardrum-throbbing noise then you really might be a cadaver.

Kansas State Wildcats guard Cartier Diarra put the exclamation mark on a 74-67 win over the Kansas Jayhawks on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 with a windmill dunk in the final minute.

But this kind of thing happens all the time. The pregame video at Allen Fieldhouse is an event. The parking lot at Bill Snyder Stadium is a gem. Johnny Russell creating. Tyreek Hill sprinting, Dee Ford turning the corner, Travis Kelce one-on-one. Danny Duffy’s curveball, Adalberto Mondesi on a sprint, Alex Gordon going back to the wall.

The 2012 Mizzou basketball team remains one of my favorites to watch of all-time. Collin Klein on the draw. Jacob Pullen on the drive. Frank Mason into the middle.

Opponents, too. Kevin Durant’s first half at the Fieldhouse was a marvel. Von Miller working against Mitch Schwartz. Francisco Lindor at the plate or on a ball up the middle. Even Madison Bumgarner on the mound.

I tell people all the time I could live to be 200 years old and never have as much fun working as I did with the 2014 and 2015 Royals. Watching the 100 meter final at the 2012 Olympics is something I’ll never forget.

I’ve been close enough to Tiger Woods to hear the driver snap through the air. I’ve been in the building for Malcolm Butler at the goal line, Anthony Davis tracking an ally-oop, and Steven Nash on a pick and roll.

I understand why you use the word “clinical,” though it’s not the one I’d choose.

Explaining the balance of this job is a task that’s probably too difficult for my brain. But there’s an important distinction. This job doesn’t require you to shut off the emotion of sports, but it does require you to not be frozen by that emotion. I’ve never written with more emotion than those Royals postseasons.

To do this job — or, at least, to do it the way I know how — doesn’t require a better relationship with sports than a typical fan or a worse one. It’s just different. You start to look for moments more than outcomes, for explanations more than results.

But I hope I don’t ever go fully clinical. That sounds boring. Sports with no passion would just be exercise. I don’t want to write about exercise, and you don’t want to read it either.

You guys. I made it through a long list of sports stuff that makes the hair on my arms go up and didn’t use the words Patrick or Mahomes.

Garozzo’s is the first to the mind, because that restaurant is basically Michael Garozzo as a business. The food is great and plentiful, the service terrific, the atmosphere nice enough for a special occasion but also not stuffy. Garozzo’s is the friend who’d go with you to see the symphony, but also match you beer-for-beer at a ballgame.

The original Peanut would be a great friend. Casual, always there, available late. Friendly. Widely loved but remains humble, never changing. The original Peanut would help you through any crisis, reminding you of who you are.

Caddyshack would be a great friend. Completely unassuming, fun no matter the weather, open as late as you’re still going, well aware of both what it is and is not. Caddyshack would be your hide-the-body friend.

Look. I’m a proud Winter Truther, and will stand up for the beauty and benefits of cold weather from now until my last breath. There is no better feeling than warmth when it’s cold, and I know this is a cheesy dad thing but it doesn’t get much better than a fire in the fireplace, popcorn from the stove*, and a movie on a cold Friday night.

But February, yeah. By now you’re a tired act.

I would still take 30 over 100, and the bursts of good days — like Wednesday! — are a gift to be treasured.

But I’d imagine even the weirdos and masochists among you who like July are tired of it when it’s still 98 on Labor Day.

Before she was my wife, she lived in Chicago, and whatever you think of winters here is a light snack compared to the six-course meal of a Chicago winter. So in the years where we basically had a Southwest Airlines relationship we picked somewhere warm for a week in February.

Basically, she couldn’t take another week in the cold.

And I get it.

The novelty of winter is long over, there’s no great holiday — VALENTINE’S DAY IS THE WORST — and spring is still not here.

This might sound weird, but this is actually part of why we got married in February. Nobody has fun stuff to do in February. The month stinks. It’s the worst. So at least one year we had a fun weekend for our friends, and now we have two fun days in the month — our older boy’s birthday is this month, too.

I’ll admit that you have to be a pretty hard member of Team Cold to think this way, but the one thing I appreciate about February is that I know it’s sort of the last of the cold. Other than a completely random and non-guaranteed night in March or May or something, this is the last chance to build a fire, last chance to make chili, last chance at a strong run of dark beers.

That’s enough for me.

I understand why it’s not enough for most of you.

You know what?

Let’s do it.

But I’ll need your help. The last time we did this, a saint of a reader had a computer program that handled everything. He has since (and understandably) moved on to bigger things so the first thing I’ll need is someone who can help.

If you are this person, please reach out to me at smellinger@kcstar.com.

We can cap the entries at 100 or 300 or whatever, but we need some sort of program where people can enter their own picks and the program takes care of the rest. If you can help, let me know. We’ll have fun.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for the nice man working on the house across the street who walked over a metal snow shovel out of pity from watching me try to break the ice on the driveway with my flimsy plastic number. Thank you good man.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.


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