Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Big 12 heats up, Chiefs get to work, and so much anger

Well, here come the Jayhawks.

“You shouldn’t put too much emphasis on tonight,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “But we did kind of grow up.”

Maybe. Probably? That’s how it looked in KU’s 64-49 win over K-State. It’s how it felt, and even if KU’s a-ha moment came a little later than usual it still might be enough to salvage what would have to be among the least likely Big 12 basketball titles since this crazy streak began in 2005.

Kansas will be favored in each of its last three games — at Oklahoma State on Saturday, and at Oklahoma and Baylor at home next week. Self said he couldn’t remember a year when KU didn’t control its own fate this late in a league race during the streak.

That would take some time to fact check, but Self’s memory is usually reliable, and either way the point is worth considering: if it’s happened before, Self doesn’t remember it.

If the Jayhawks are able to backdoor their way into a share it would be among the most compelling arguments for the front of the jersey in recent college basketball history. KU’s starters have a grand total of bupkis experience in a league race. Three critical players are unavailable — star big man Udoka Azubuike is injured, Silvio De Sousa is on an NCAA suspension after keying last year’s Final Four run, and returning starter Lagerald Vick is on a leave of absence.

There is really no logical reason that Kansas should be able to claim a championship in the country’s No. 1 RPI conference, but here we are.

It would be a black eye on the rest of the league, for sure, but also a strong show of useful stubbornness from Kansas.

K-State and Texas control their own fates. Kansas must win out, with TCU and Baylor playing outsized roles because of the finishing schedules.

This has been, if we’re honest, a pretty forgettable season of college basketball so far. We might have a finish that makes up for it.

This week’s eating recommendation is the crown beef rib at Jack Stack, and the reading recommendation is Michael Rosenberg on why the Robert Kraft story is no laughing matter.

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

K-State finishes with Baylor at home, at TCU, and Oklahoma at home. I cannot imagine a reasonable person being surprised with any outcome. Each of those games is winnable, each is losable. K-State has no more games at Allen Fieldhouse, and no more games against Oklahoma State.

The most likely outcome is winning two of three, but the toughest game might be at TCU, and the Horned Frogs have lost three of four and five of eight.

TCU also has Texas Tech at home on Saturday, which led Bill Self to call the Horned Frogs “my second-favorite team,” but it’s hard to trust that group right now. A perfect finish would not be a surprise.

I know it’s easy to dismiss K-State, but everything is still in its control. Five days of rest should help Dean Wade and Kam Stokes, but here’s some unsolicited and unneeded advice for Bruce Weber:

Stop talking about how difficult it is to play without practice. Just stop. No teams are 100 percent healthy, and the more the leader talks about it the more the players hear it and the more it bleeds into morale and confidence.

This is the best team Weber has had in at least six years, and with this senior class, it’s the best team he’s likely to have in at least a few more. Now is not the time for excuses, in other words, because K-State remains in an enviable position. Take care of what they can, and they will have an accomplishment worthy of a trophy and a banner.

I believe in this team. I believe in Weber as a coach, and more importantly I believe in Barry Brown as a player and leader. The same way KU was well positioned to bounce back after the emasculation in Lubbock, K-State is well positioned for a strong finish with a proud and accomplished group.

I know a lot of you are expecting a collapse. But it’s easy to miss that Weber’s teams have come back from worse before.

Totally. That was bad, and basically the point I was trying to make with the game column.

There is no shame in losing at Allen Fieldhouse. Everybody does it (except Arizona State). The worry comes in how it happened, with the oldest and most experienced team in the league getting bossed around by a young group with precious little experience.

Brown has been more than good enough to be excused a bad night, and Wade is playing through foot pain. But those two simply have to be better in that moment — 12 points on 3-of-15 shooting?

Again. K-State still has control of this narrative, and of how this season will be remembered.

But those worries have to be addressed, and addressed with gusto.

Assume this is being asked because of The Star’s editorial board writing about that this week.

I have a couple minor quibbles here. First, the headline was awkward, because the conversation has started. It’s been going on for years, in different forms. Decades, even. Also, it’s hard to imagine the Chiefs moving.

Arrowhead is perfect where it is, and what’s more is that the Royals moving would improve the Truman Sports Complex site for the Chiefs. Ripping the baseball stadium down would mean more parking or the ability to build an entertainment district that could produce revenue year-round.

This is a major trend in the NFL, and could appeal to the Hunts as both protecting the history of Arrowhead and modernizing them into a world with more revenue streams. Bars, restaurants, shopping — there are a lot of ways to maximize the space.

I do think the Royals moving downtown would be good for the franchise, and more importantly good for Kansas City. We need to think less about now, and more about what’s going to best in 10 years or 20.

The team and city need to make their case about parking, because other than barbecue and appearing on weird national top 10 lists there are few things Kansas Citians love more than parking. Many would be surprised at how many spaces already exist downtown, and the team would be well-served to point this out. Many parking spots at Truman Sports Complex, for instance, are more than a half-mile from the Kauffman Stadium gates.

I do think the Royals are more serious about exploring this than ever before, and that there are more people inside the organization — and people whose voices truly matter within the organization — who want to be downtown than ever before.

This is a real thing. But, anyway, those are all arguments for another day.

If I’m understanding your question correctly, there are only a few things we need to work on:

Maximizing our involvement in the 2026 World Cup. Interestingly, there is an overlap here with the future of Arrowhead Stadium. This is also something we’ll talk more about as time goes on.

Protecting and in some cases growing our existing assets. Mostly, that means the health of our existing franchises, keeping the Big 12 basketball tournament, and continuing to be active with other organizations ranging from the NAIA to World Figure Skating. It also means growing our base of youth and high school events, and expanding the use of Children’s Mercy Park, Sprint Center, and Arrowhead for games and other events.

Landing an NBA or NHL team, and this is where we start dreaming. I want to be clear: I still believe this is a very long longshot. Like, push-scootering-I-70-from-St. Louis-to-Denver long. But for reasons I’m not ready to expand on quite yet, I believe it’s at least possible in a way I haven’t before. AEG lied, and played us. But if the right grassroots push convinces the right people to invest and the right line of dominoes fall at the right times ... well, it’s at least possible. And the payoff is too big to not keep an open mind.

Oh I have opinions about this. Neither is a metric worth a damn, but one of the enduring mysteries of baseball in general and the Royals in particular is why they repeatedly make roster decisions and change their minds on personnel based largely on spring training performance.

There is no greater lie in professional baseball than spring training. That’s especially true in the Cactus League, with high skies that turn fly outs into doubles and thin air that turns doubles into homers.

These are games where minor-leaguers are often competing against major-leaguers, who often don’t play road games even in stadiums a half-hour or so away. The stat sheet might say this young hitter went 3-for-4, but what it doesn’t say is who the pitchers were, and whether they were throwing all fastballs, or no sliders, or focusing on getting everything to the glove side corner.

But the mystery isn’t in any of that, because baseball people know all of these things. They certainly know them better than some smart aleck sports columnist. But it seems that every year a certain number of long-range decisions are made almost entirely based on the lies that occur in these spring training games.

I’m not telling you that what happens is irrelevant. You can see bat speed, or whether a pitcher is repeating mechanics, or how a player is adjusting to a new defensive position. But for reasons that begin with a small sample size and expand greatly from there we also know that a guy who hit .230 in spring is often a better player than the guy who hit .350.

We know that. We all know that. But every spring, we still get fooled, because these are the only results we have to work with.

Lies, I say. Lies.

Questions like this, I don’t like. This is a false choice. There are ways the Chiefs could have a bad offseason that includes a free agent starting safety, and there are ways the Chiefs have a good offseason without.

I believe the Chiefs already addressed their most important need by replacing Bob Sutton with Steve Spagnuolo, for reasons I’ve written about. The offseason is far from complete, however, and we did a partial checklist of more priorities.

For the second straight offseason the focus should be almost entirely on defense, and the only reason “almost” is in this sentence is because Tyreek Hill should get a contract extension.

The Chiefs can play this out another year, and then do the franchise tag dance, but Hill has exceeded all reasonable expectations and an extension now means credit for reworking what is set to be a $2 million salary in 2019. He’ll be looking for OBJ money, and he’s worth it.

Thus concludes our offense portion of the offseason.

To me, dedicating any major resources — money or draft picks — on an inside linebacker would be a mistake. They traded for Reggie Ragland, and they spent big on Anthony Hitchens, who should be one of the biggest winners from Spagnuolo’s system and priorities.

Making another big move for a non-premium position would be hard to justify.

The secondary is complicated. Kendall Fuller is a very good player, and another who might benefit from the switch. He was so good in the slot in Washington, but was often wide with the Chiefs last year*.

*According to Pro Football Focus, he was wide on 241 snaps in 2018, compared to just 43 in 2017.

Charvarius Ward showed himself to be solid-with-upside when given a chance, but Steven Nelson was so much better than many Chiefs fans realize, and assuming he signs somewhere else means a position that already needed attention needs even more.

The Chiefs will have to formulate a plan with Eric Berry. The short version is they’re essentially stuck with him. The longer version will be a column of its own soon. But the plan will have to determine a comfort level, or how confident the Chiefs are that Berry will play in 2019.

That will inform how they approach the position, namely whether they can find a way and cap space to sign Landon Collins — a terrific fit, and favorite of Spagnuolo’s from their time together in New York.

The Chiefs have three picks in the first two rounds, and I’m expecting each of them to be used on a defensive back or defensive lineman. That’s where they need the most help, unless you’re assuming Justin Houston won’t be back, but even then the best edge rushers will be gone long before the Chiefs pick 29th.

There’s a lot to fix, and we’ll continue to go through it as the offseason progresses. But there is a path, and the good news is they don’t need to be perfect. They just need to not stink out loud.

This depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is how you define success, but these questions are basically a confidence test in the coach and let me say right here that I like both coaches.

Mizzou, for the first time in recent memory, appears to be stable with coaches of both major revenue producing sports.

Cuonzo Martin is a fighter, and a damn good defensive coach. He’s taken rotten breaks two years in a row — Michael Porter Jr. last season; Jontay this season — and pushed forward anyway.

This team isn’t spectacularly talented, and without Porter was always going to be playing with a lower ceiling. But you can still see Martin’s mark — most obviously in the improvement of Jordan Geist and coming steadiness of Jeremiah Tilmon

There’s more in this group. Tilmon will be a force next year, Mark Smith will be better, and freshman Jevon Pickett has had some nice moments. The recruiting class includes top 100 power forward Tray Jackson and top 150 guard Mario McKinney.

But what’s most encouraging about Martin long-term is that you can see a plan. You can see a path. It’s notable that they didn’t get in on Ochai Agbaji, but Martin seems to have a good hold on St. Louis.

There was a lot of talent that left the state in recent years, and not just the NBA stars people always mention. Like, what about Xavier Sneed? If Martin was at Mizzou for Sneed’s recruiting, maybe that turns out differently. Mizzou is well-positioned, then, even if recruiting will be disproportionately affected by the talent available in St. Louis.

Barry Odom had what sure felt like a breakthrough last season, winning five of the last six, including a blowout of Florida and 50-ball on Tennessee — each on the road.

Maybe you want a little more consistency, and they still need to re-establish a quarterback pipeline, but landing Kelly Bryant is a fantastic bridge for the future.

It’s hard to think of too many coaches who’ve been through more crises and apocalyptic forecasts in three years and lived to sign a contract extension, but Odom is engaged, committed, and obviously has the respect and belief of his players.

But the answer for me here is basketball.

I’m taking a leap from the moment, because basketball is 12-14 and 3-11 in the SEC right now, but I’m going back to the part about the path. Martin has a plan that feels imminently workable, and probably fruitful.

The SEC is a better basketball league than its reputation in some circles, and the enormous money from football is bleeding over. But there’s still more room to move up in that sport, and it’s not hard to imagine a run of a decade or more where Martin is consistently in the NCAA Tournament and occasionally an SEC title threat.

Football is just such a more crowded field. The margins are so much smaller. Mizzou is way behind financially, and the gap will shrink with the new football facilities but other SEC schools are on a different level institutionally.

There are reasons this isn’t a perfectly useful analogy, but look at this year’s recruiting rankings. Mizzou is 34th nationally, which is and sounds pretty good. That’s one spot behind Baylor, which is fourth in the Big 12. It also happens to be 13th in the SEC, ahead of Vanderbilt and nobody else.

Now, recruiting rankings are flawed. We all agree. But it does speak to how much tougher it is to be the football coach at Mizzou than basketball.

There is no question that Bill Self and Lagerald Vick have had conflict. That is no secret. Self has probably been as frustrated with Vick as any player he’s had at Kansas. Vick is the Babe Ruth of angering Self.

But it’s also true that Self had the perfect way to never coach Vick again. Vick decided to leave the program after last season, and when the pro prospects were less than he expected, Self had every right and opportunity to shut the door.

Self welcomed him back. Yes, it came with stipulations. Yes, it came with a team short on three-point shooting. But if the narrative was true that Self sees Vick as an irredeemable pain in the rear, Vick would’ve been somewhere other than Lawrence this season.

OK. More disclaimers. Vick was a mess in that first K-State game. Blew two or three defensive assignments right after tipoff and then — and this is the part that really triggered Self — blamed others for it. Shortly after that, it was announced that Vick was taking a leave of absence.

The easy read there is that Self essentially kicked him off the team, but the situation is more complicated and nuanced and even delicate.

Vick’s absence has undoubtedly lifted a cloud. Chemistry is obviously better. All those things are true.

But I don’t know if it’s fair to see this as black and white, and to give 100 percent of the blame on Vick and 100 percent of the credit on his absence.

First, and nobody really talks about this but it’s true: the specific reasons for Vick’s absence have not been made public. They’ve been kept private for a reason, and if you think about what those reasons might be, you might want to pump the breaks with piling on.

I also think Self is playing a PR game here. Nate* made a great point on the Border Patrol the other day, about how Self (among many others) uses public messages to coach his teams.

*More on him in a minute!

The theory is that he knows this is a group that responds better to pats on the back than kicks in the rear, and that the best path forward might be to amplify the feeling that this is a new beginning. That things are fresher, and lighter. These freshmen — and I’d say Quentin Grimes in particular — need encouragement more than criticism, so that’s what Self is providing.

If this is all true, then the insinuation of addition by subtraction is unfortunate.

If you don’t think there’s any logic here, I’d just point out that Self made a point to refute the idea that Vick’s return had been ruled out. He wouldn’t have done that if he wanted nothing to do with Vick, or if he felt the team was better specifically because Vick wasn’t there anymore.

The Royals have a really interesting set of decisions ahead of them. They’ve only retired three numbers:

George Brett, unquestionably the best player in franchise history, an icon of the sport.

Frank White, an eight-time Gold Glove winner, five-time All-Star, and an 18-year Royal including hitting cleanup when they won their first World Series.

Dick Howser, the beloved manager of that first championship team, who died less than two years later.

That’s a high bar. The 2014 and 2015 Royals were different than the 1985 champs. The more recent run was more of a group effort — keep the line moving, rather than watch George in Game 3 against the Blue Jays.

For instance, if you retire Gordon’s number and/or Perez’s, what about Lorenzo Cain? He was the best player on the world champions. What about Wade Davis? He was a star. His both-sides-of-the-rain-delay performance in the ALCS clincher is a local legend. Eric Hosmer? Mike Moustakas? Alcides Escobar?

Where do you stop?

The counterargument would be mostly about longevity. Gordon and Perez signed extensions to stay. They’ve each played their entire careers here, and no matter what happens in the future their best seasons will almost certainly be with the Royals.

Gordon hit the homer off Familia, Perez the Wild Card winner. Both have been critical parts of the building, with symbolic origin stories.

Gordon was the local(ish) kid with a brother named after Brett, two standing ovations before his first plate appearance, a career left for dead after deep struggles and then a brilliant reinvention as the game’s best left fielder for a time.

Perez was signed on the Royals’ first real international scouting trip, a longshot prospect the Royals liked in part because of his smile. He was the relentless energy of some of their best moments, and the American League’s best catcher for a time.

Those are compelling arguments, and if White is the standard then both are close.

I just wonder if the Royals will want to keep the standard the standard, and remember Gordon and Perez with statues and some of the other keys of the 2015 push with team Hall of Fame inductions.

Boy, that escalated quickly.

Nate is a friend. I’m a regular guest on the Border Patrol. I think Nate is a good man. Disclaimers out of the way, let’s move on.

That was a really, really, really bad look. He’s a grown man who lost himself in the moment and made himself look silly. I would imagine we all agree on that.

I don’t know where the line is, exactly, about what’s acceptable behavior at a game for a radio host attending said game as a fan but here’s a handy cheat sheet: if you get screengrabbed, you probably passed it.

So, let’s talk about what happened after Nate stood and waved a stat sheet at K-State’s Xavier Sneed.

Nate was mocked. He was embarrassed. He apologized quickly, acknowledging how it came off.

I’m not sure what else people want.

Nate has never hid his fandom. It’s part of his work profile, and indeed part of his work background. He got carried away, and that’s on him. He opened the can, but the faux outrage is a tired act.

We’ve become so dang tribal. Us against Them. That’s never been truer, or at least, I’m not old enough to remember a time when that was truer. Sports, politics, entertainment, everything.

This isn’t absolute. Just with this silly controversy you can find KU fans coming down on Nate, and K-State fans wondering why some are so angry.

But, more times than not and certainly more often than would be advised, we all just sort of operate on default mode, reacting to events based more on our rooting or personal interests than the facts on the ground.

Nate is a person who did a dumb thing. He apologized. He’s worn loads of fair criticism already, and I can promise you that as a friend I am salivating at being able to pile on when the right moment comes.

But if this is the kind of thing that triggers you into genuine anger long after the moment has passed I can’t imagine how that’s healthy.

What if it’s both? Can I say both? Because I think the answer is both.

Harder: there’s more noise. So much noise. All the noise. False information, views from a vocal minority that can sometimes look like the majority. And did I mention noise? The field is crowded, which means it’s harder to have a voice. There’s a temptation to be loud and #taeky to push through which is dangerous.

Easier: I hear about stories I never would without social media. I can have conversations that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, and reach people I otherwise couldn’t. There’s false information, but that’s always been true, and it’s our job to get through it.

Twitter and Facebook, in particular, seem to get a little worse each year. But I wouldn’t trade it.

I’ve made friends, shared pictures, known about things from strangers and old friends that I never would’ve otherwise, and been exposed to new thoughts, great stories, and lots of laughs.

The easiest thing in the world is to bang on social media. To criticize it, dismiss it, make fun of it. I’ve done my share. But the truth is social media is what we make it. No better, no worse. So if it’s become a cesspool, that’s more on us than anything else.

Clean up the pool or get out.

Here’s something strange: I watched most of the Oscars on Sunday for the first time in my life.

This was mostly by accident. By the time I came down from putting the kids to bed my wife had it on, and she was into it, and without a game or a show that either of us are really into* what else am I going to do?

*Suggestions are always welcome. I can’t do sci-fi, and we don’t have Showtime or HBO, so Netflix or Amazon recommendations are preferred.

And true story: I had seen zero movies mentioned, and heard of exactly one. That was Black Panther, because it was a social media Thing.

I hope this doesn’t come across as the delightfully and intentionally out-of-touch old man — looking at you, Nick Saban — who can’t wait to call it MyFace or Instabook or whatever. That’s not my intention.

I just mean this sincerely: I am fundamentally out of touch with much of pop culture. This always happens around the Oscars or Grammys, and I’ve always imagined it’s how people who don’t care about football feel around the Super Bowl.

It’s rather educational, really, and I appreciate the experience. It’s a reminder that we all create these personalized worlds for ourselves, which is great, but it’s also a lie if we let ourselves believe any of this is truly important in the bigger picture.

It’s probably never been easier to lose perspective.

Thank you for attending my awful TED Talk.

Three come to mind, and I’m well aware of my excellent fortune with this job and this life. If I never go to another game or event I’ll have been to enough to fill three lifetimes. But you’re not asking about that. Here we go.

A list? A list!

1. A major European soccer match. Doesn’t have to be Champions League, though that would obviously be incredible. I just want to see a game at Barcelona, or Real Madrid, or Old Trafford, or Anfield, or especially the Emirates. I would want to go early and walk around after, soaking it all in, because I’m not sure there’s anything like it.

2. A baseball game at the Tokyo Dome. Japanese baseball looks so cool on TV, and everyone I know who’s been says it’s like nothing else.

3. The Masters. I feel like I know the course already just from TV, but I’m not sure there’s a more beautiful setting for a sports event.

True story: there was a time in my adult life when I thought Nutella was healthy. I have no idea how this happened, but believe it was a combination of hope, gullibility, the willingness to believe in the impossible, and maybe my mom saying once “it’s not as bad as people say.”

I put it on graham crackers and ate like my last meal.

I’ve never really weighed myself, but I can tell you I gained a noticeable and embarrassing amount of weight in a remarkable short period of time.

But, anyway, I happen to have a 2-year-old son who (at least to my knowledge) has never had Nutella. An incomplete list of things you might have your little person try: cheeseburgers for breakfast, spicy wings, and like a million chicken nuggets used basically like shovels for ranch.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for our soon-to-be 5-year-old. I know this is corny, but 4 was a great age. He gained so much confidence, experienced new things, and watching his personality develop has been an incredible joy.

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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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