Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: March Madness, Chiefs’ outlook, Tyreek Hill and much more

The best way to pick a bracket is quickly. Read up a little before you do it, if that’s your thing, but don’t get into the weeds about which team plays the most zone defense and has a potentially favorable second-round matchup because of it.

Unless you’re a masochist. In that case, I’m not here to tell you what to do.

So with that in mind, here is one man’s general bracket, chosen in real time as a public service.

Step 1: Read what I did.

Step 2: Do the opposite.

Step 3: Profit!

In the East, Duke is by far the best team so just write that annoying word six times until you get to the box that says champion. Virginia Tech has a good coach (Buzz Williams), an NBA talent (Nickell Alexander-Walker) and a potential boost if the injured Justin Robinson is finally healthy. Mark them in for the Sweet 16.

I’ll fade LSU because they’re a mess, pick Belmont in a few upsets because I watched them on TV a couple times and liked what I saw, and Michigan State to make it to the Elite Eight because I love my wife.

In the West, I know Murray State will be a trendy upset because the Racers are a No. 12 seed and Ja Morant will be the No. 2 pick in the draft, but I’m picking them anyway but only for a game. Florida State is better than most people realize. Texas Tech will be a tough out, but Michigan is balanced with shooters and athletes and a coach who won’t get bossed by Chris Beard. The Wolverines beat Gonzaga for the Final Four.

In the South, I want to pick Virginia all the way through because it might be the single most motivated team in the bracket. But at this point, I’m a little self-conscious about picking too much chalk in a year without really great teams so the Cavaliers pay the price for being in the third region I’m picking. This is very scientific. So pick them through to the Elite Eight — beating Wisconsin, which will beat K-State in the round of 32 — and then getting knocked off by Purdue.

The Boilermakers have a capable coach (Matt Painter), a stud guard (Carsen Edwards), enough experience (three of the top four in minutes are upperclassmen), a 7-foot-3 center (Matt Harms) and one of the nation’s best offenses. Congrats, Boilers, on beating Tennessee and then Virginia to make the Final Four.

In the Midwest, at this point I feel a little better about my bracket’s chalkiness. Not good enough to pick No. 1 seed North Carolina, but good enough to pick Kentucky, which is the most complete team anyway. I’d rather pick Houston, if we’re honest, but I already picked one 3 seed and the Cougars are hurt by the fact that the only full game I’ve watched of them this year they lost to UCF at home. One more time: I’m scientific.

So P.J. Washington pushes Kentucky past Houston (which scores enough to get past Iowa State) and Auburn (which beats Kansas and upsets North Carolina*) to get to the Final Four.

* Honestly, this is a bad pick. When Roy Williams has a top seed he’s usually money.

Once we’re in Minneapolis, talent wins out, despite Duke’s lack of 3-point shooting. Zion Williamson dominates, helping Duke beat Michigan and then Kentucky for Coach K’s gajillionth national championship.

You’re welcome.

This week’s eating recommendation is the wings at the Peanut, because that’s the prize I won for crushing my kids’ hopes in our family Big 12 bracket challenge, and the reading recommendation is Brendan Quinn on a day with Tom Izzo.

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

There is nothing truer in my job than the fact that nobody thinks I like the school they cheer for.

The dynamic is really interesting. Say something critical of the Royals or Chiefs, and the debate will almost always be civil and on merit. Say something critical of KU, and it’s “why do you have the school you went to?” Say something critical of Mizzou, and it’s “go to hell kU beaker.”

Let’s go to the tape:

I really like that one, and it holds up so well. Here’s another:

Have yet to hear anyone say we’re too nice to their school, or too mean to their rival. But this isn’t a complaint. With very, very, very few exceptions the civil and thoughtful discussion far outweighs the stupid and ugly. It’s also true that if you’re the type to be bothered by anonymous and hyperbolic criticism then sports columnist in a city where sports passion runs deep is probably not the job for you.

But, because I’m a glutton, here’s what I think of the local schools in the tournament:

K-State got a nice draw, and I’m aware what they did last year with Dean Wade’s injury, but that’s a real challenge. They’ll need a lot from Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra. Defense will give them a chance in every game, but those scoring droughts will keep anything from being easy.

KU got a bad draw in terms of matchups, but (obviously) a potentially terrific draw playing the second weekend in Kansas City. I just don’t trust this team. They’re good enough to make it through by playing well, but I’m not convinced they’ll be as engaged as you’d want. Throw in their first two opponents each being a bad matchup on 3-pointers, and it’s somewhere less than a 50-50 chance they play in Kansas City.

Sorry for all the typical hate.

Based on committee criteria, neither local team “deserved” Kansas City. KU was higher on the committee’s seed rankings, and Bill Self said he was “almost shocked” the Jayhawks got the potential pseudo home games.

This is all a little nuanced, and with all these #taeks to get out nobody has time for nuance, but here goes anyway:

K-State had a better year than Kansas. K-State won a share of the league championship, its first since 2013, and KU finished third. K-State split with Kansas, then lost the conference tournament semifinal at less than full strength. The same team that beat K-State beat KU in the final.

But KU (by the committee’s criteria) was ranked higher based largely on the nation’s toughest schedule. Traditionally, few if any schools play a tougher non-conference schedule. Bill Self wants to do that anyway, but is particularly motivated by how that can improve NCAA seeding.

KU has been remarkably successful and consistent on its own, but its seedings have often been boosted by the metrics.

In theory, I’m glad the NCAA does this. It’s a good business decision, too, because it encourages strong non-conference games. This is why the Champions Classic was born, for instance.

The problem is when strength of schedule is used against mid-majors and below, because those schools often don’t have the opportunity to schedule up. At least not with a home-in-home. You think any traditional power wanted to go play at Murray State this year? Or, to use a better example, Houston?

I hope those kinds of things are taken into consideration when weighing a mediocre power conference team against a good mid-major that didn’t win its league tournament.

That said, I actually think the committee did pretty well this year. I know we’re all supposed to just gripe, but other than Michigan State being stuck as Duke’s No. 2 seed and KU getting a potential home game in the second weekend, there isn’t a lot to get mad about.

Well done, suits.

One more time ... I understand what K-State did last year without Wade. But, still, I would only agree with you if he was fully healthy.

As it stands, I think I’d go with Texas Tech. That was a bad loss in the Big 12 tournament, but they still defend like maniacs, and Jarrett Culver will still be the best player on the floor most games.

The Red Raiders’ bracket is probably the most reasonable, too. Landmines are everywhere, and in the West it’s Buffalo*, Nevada**, and of course Michigan and Gonzaga.

* Underseeded, 31-3, balanced and experienced.

** Same descriptions can be used, though the usual strength of schedule disclaimers apply.

But I just see Tech as slightly better than K-State, and the West slightly easier than the South.

K-State can make it through, but there’s a logical case that Virginia is the most motivated high-level team in the country. Wisconsin is very #on-brand this season, and probably under seeded at No. 5. The Badgers defend, take care of the ball, and shoot it pretty well. And that’s just the top of that bracket.

Kansas is hard to believe in. They don’t score consistently enough, and don’t defend well enough to make up for it. Iowa State could absolutely shoot its way to Minneapolis, but Houston and Kentucky are formidable and it’s hard for any team getting by on 3-pointers for two straight weeks.

So, anyway. That’s just how I see it. But nobody has any clue.

Of course. How could it not?

It’s a factor in recruiting, it’s a factor in donations, it’s a factor with everything. There are few corners of America where image is more important than college sports, and this is bad for the image.

Bad image can turn into bad production pretty quickly in college sports.

The timing here is a coincidence, because you sent this question before my column posted with Bill Self pledging allegiance to KU, but that’s an important element. Because if Self left, particularly right now, the man who replaced him would be a downgrade.

I’ve always thought Self would leave for the NBA. I’ve written that here repeatedly. But I do believe he doesn’t want to be seen as running from the NCAA. He’s a fighter, and few things mean more to him than prevailing in a fight. If there was a chance his interest in the NBA would’ve come this year then maybe the investigation is keeping him in Lawrence.

That’s an interesting thing, because the Spurs job has always made the most sense (from Self’s side, anyway), and Gregg Popovich has said he’s uncertain whether he’ll coach beyond this season.

Now, all that said, in the (very, very, very) very unlikely scenario the Lakers call and give him the chance to coach LeBron then this is a very different conversation.

Well, this is interesting. I disagree with the specifics of the question, but certainly understand the broader point. Hopefully I can explain.

I don’t think the Chiefs are doing the Lloyd Christmas thing, and covering their ears and closing their eyes and yelling SPAGSWILLFIXITSPAGSWILLFIXITSPAGSWILLFIXIT...

The defense is going to be fundamentally different. This isn’t just about Spagnuolo, but about moving away from most of the biggest names on that side of the ball. This is the drastic remake that should’ve happened a year ago. They will have new corners, new pass rushers, new safeties, new scheme.

It’s a really aggressive and ambitious move, one that makes them less talented in the near term but potentially much better in the long. If you just look at the thought process, it’s pretty easy to understand.

Now, all that said, your point might be that this is all Spagnuolo driven. That the Chiefs have basically signed off the defense to Spagnuolo and are moving mountains of dead money and cap space to give him what he wants. Your point might be that Spagnuolo is not Wade Phillips, so he hasn’t earned it, and that’s also an easy point to understand.

Because if Spagnuolo isn’t a major upgrade from Bob Sutton, then the whole plan is doomed from the start.

I happen to believe he is definitely an upgrade from Sutton, and perhaps a major upgrade. I happen to believe that the rocket ship offense inflated some of the pass rush numbers last year, and that Sutton — a prince of a man, by all accounts, and I’ll truly miss talking with him — did painfully little to adjust and put his players in the best situations.

I also believe that the culture of the defense had devolved, not just with players but with the staff. If nothing else, Spagnuolo — and an entirely new staff, save for Andy’s son Britt — will change that part of it.

I think Tyrann* Mathieu and Alex Okafor are each good and smart signings. I think that Dee Ford could’ve helped the Chiefs in 2019, but I understand the concerns about him learning a new scheme particularly with a potential holdout.

* It’s pronounced TY-run, by the way. Rhymes with Byron.

But I’m still not sure how they’ll pressure the quarterback outside of Spagnuolo creating it with scheme, or Chris Jones beating the double teams he’ll see more often without Ford and Justin Houston.

I believe the Chiefs will be better defensively, and only some of that is because it would be hard for them to be worse.

But we’ll see. The offseason’s not over, too.

Well, sure. They’re talented as the dickens, as the kids have never said, and by all appearances Freddie Kitchens is a capable coach. They’ll score a ton of points and have enough talent on defense to be dangerous there, too.

The 2019 Chiefs changed so much. They changed what many feel is possible for this group, and at some point a general feeling emerged that the Chiefs would be the AFC’s next dynasty whenever Tom Brady finally ages.

But that was never the Chiefs’ right, it always had to be earned, and if not the Browns then it could be the Texans or Colts or Bills or Chargers or Ravens. The NFL dictates parity, so even with a unicorn quarterback the Chiefs are going to have to earn it.

The Browns could be that team, and it’s interesting to see that it’s the Chiefs’ former general manager essentially mimicking the Chiefs: young, creative, franchise quarterback surrounded by a ridiculous amount of skill position talent and a few playmakers on defense.

It would be a hell of a long-term rivalry, when you think about it. Big markets be damned, that’s the kind of thing that could draw in a lot of casual fans.

The following is not intended to be mean-spirited but my goodness what a mess.

College sports have always largely been about fit, and Shaka Smart was always a terrible fit at Texas. He was a hot name for a few years, and that’s about as far as it went.

He took a job at a school that demands top recruits and made his success with a system that top recruits would never buy into.

All at a historically underperforming program.

What could go wrong?

Fred Hoiberg is said to be the frontrunner for a potential opening at Nebraska, and he will be mentioned as a candidate for any major opening.

He’ll be an interesting hire whenever and if he wants a job. He has enough cache that he could probably break through any program’s culture, and his connections to the NBA mean he’ll always have access to recruits.

If Hoiberg is unavailable to Texas, you know who they should hire?

Rick Barnes. He’s doing a really good job at Tennessee, and used to live in Austin.

The answer to the first question is no, at least in the way I think you’re asking. We get pitched all the time. That’s part of the job. And it should be. I’ll always listen. It’s in my best interest to be as informed as possible, and it’s in the teams’ best interest for the best perception possible.

Obviously those two things often mean very different outcomes — more information isn’t always the best perception for teams — but it’s important to listen.

But what I’m talking about there is a conversation with a coach or executive or someone else with a team about why something happened. That happens routinely.

What I think you’re asking about is if a team asks me to not write about something, or to take a particular slant, just for the sake of the team. If that’s what you’re asking about, I would like to answer it as clearly as possible:

Hell no, and teams know better.

I have good relationships with, pretty much, all the teams we cover. Enough that I can usually find something out if I need to, or at least find out if I’m going down the wrong path. I value those relationships, and believe they can be mutually beneficial, which is why I tweeted this a few weeks ago after a lot of you said nice things about the Adalberto Mondesi story:

But, anyway, I could go on for a thousand words about this. There’s no one way to navigate the competing pressures of what your readers deserve and what your sources want.

You have to weigh motivations, importance of news, public interest, all sorts of things. You have to be a human. You have to be honest. You have to be willing to shut the notebook and turn off the voice recorder. Sometimes, you have to let people vent.

Also, and this is important: if you’re going to be critical you have to let those you’re critical of have a chance to respond face to face.

I want to be clear about something else. I am not perfect, with any of this. There are things I’ve written that I wish I wouldn’t have, and there are probably times I’ve been critical and not given the subject a shot back.

We’re all human, we all screw up, we’re all guessing and trying the best we can.

Your last question is also a no, and the best example might be that the season the Star was reporting the Josh Jackson stuff was also the season I was sort of behind the scenes writing about the program.

At no point did anyone — Self, a player, PR, anyone — mention the reporting or otherwise even vaguely threaten to pull the access. I had two conversations with Self about that stuff, if I remember right, and both came after I asked him if there was anything he wanted to say. It was all professional.

That’s not how it always goes. I’ve certainly had sources close up after writing something they didn’t like, and I’m smart enough to know that people won’t talk to you if you’re not fair to them.

But you should be fair to people anyway.

You know what, as I’m typing this, I can think of a situation that fits what you might be asking bout: someone who stopped talking to me because of something I wrote and it was my fault.

I’m not going to name them here, because I don’t know if that’s fair, but it wasn’t a coach or GM or someone you’d guess. I still think about it, and still feel badly about it. It was unintentional on my part, but absolutely my fault. He had every reason to be mad at me, and writing this is motivation to call him this week.

So, thanks for that.

I want to be clear and careful here. This is a minority view, but it’s a loud minority, and it’s loud enough and absurd enough that I want to talk about this.

Some of you are embarrassing yourselves. Hopefully that doesn’t apply to you. Like I said, I believe it to be a minority view. But some of you have been intentionally misreading the reports, ugly, ignorant and worse. I hope you calm down and think like an adult.

I’m trying to ignore that the worst of the worst has been directed at Brooke (a woman) and not Steve Vockrodt (a man) but moving on, this is not a witch hunt.

DCF and police are investigating. That’s what we reported, and it’s since been confirmed by the police and Chiefs.

That’s not a witch hunt, and anyone who believes that is blinded by football or just not very smart.

An investigation does not mean charges and charges do not mean a crime. We’ve written that, repeatedly, and yet some continue to complain that we’re convicting.

Some of you yell that we shouldn’t report anything until we know everything, which is patently ridiculous. Some of you say that accurately reporting the news of an investigation is too much, but then immediately demand that we report the outcome of an investigation that is not complete.

One of the most frustrating parts of this business is being criticized for something you didn’t write.

And if we reported that Hill had been charged before he was charged, or found to have hit someone when that’s simply not true, then by all means. Have at us. We deserve every bit of it.

But that’s not what’s happened. There is an investigation. We reported it. It’s been confirmed. Let’s see what happens next.

One more thing. There’s been a lot of “you guys are just begging for clicks.” That’s obnoxious, for at least two reasons. First, I want every person on the planet to read everything I write, even this weekly timesuck.

Also, “desperate for clicks” would be if I wrote a column that said Patrick Mahomes is an overrated product of the NFL’s war on defense. That would be trash, and you should rip out my fingernails if I ever do that. But that’s not what this is.

The insinuation that this is just some fabrication to satisfy a desperate business plan is ridiculous. The single dumbest business plan I can think of would be for us to make up an investigation that wasn’t happening, because it would torpedo our credibility. We understand the stakes, and reported the news story accurately.

Well, yes, that’s exactly what it was.

And I get where the vitriol comes from. Nobody wants the worst to be true, and there remains a realistic outcome here that doesn’t include even an NFL suspension. Also, sports are deeply personal, and can take on a disproportionate amount of importance, so when a star player is involved in an investigation like this the initial response from some fans is often aggressive defensiveness and denial.

One more time, I want to emphasize that I believe the vast majority of fans are level headed about this.

They see that the reporting was accurate and confirmed. They see that the Star has never said a crime was committed. Most importantly, they care first about the safety of the child and woman.

I’m focusing on that, anyway.

Of course we did.

Tyreek and his agent have every right to defend themselves as loudly as they wish, and they have every right to keep quiet until there’s a result. I don’t think either path means it’s likelier that something happened or didn’t.

One thing I’m reminded of with all of this is that we in the media have to be diligent about explaining what we do. We have to be as clear as possible. Sometimes that’s more difficult than others.

Unfortunately, many people glance at a headline and make wild accusations. Many people intentionally misread something to fit a preconceived notion about guilt or innocence. Others do so innocently, because they’re reading it quickly on their phone at a red light.

That’s not our fault. All we can do is all we can do. But I do think it’s something all of us should remember as we go forward.

I don’t know who is interested, or what the money would be, so this is all speculation. I’ve seen others mention Kim English, and if UMKC doesn’t reach out to him it is negligent.

English is young, smart, and at least familiar with Kansas City. He’s an assistant at Colorado in the Pac-12 after two seasons at a mid-major with Tulsa. He’s worth a call, at least.

UMKC would also be negligent not to at least reach out to Ben McCollum, who has built an absolute killer program at Northwest Missouri State. This would be a more difficult challenge, but at a lower level McCollum has created a program that would beat the socks off UMKC. Northwest was 12-15 the year before he got there, and 96-5 the last three years. He knows what he’s doing.

There will be others who are interested. That’s a bad job, in my opinion, for a lot of reasons. There isn’t much local interest, the athletic department is a mess, and I’m not sure how committed they are institutionally.

The best local kids are too good for the program, and the rest have traditionally wanted to play somewhere else. Culture is a hard thing to change.

So I guess what I’m saying is that if I was in charge at UMKC the first thing I’d do isn’t to call a bunch of coaches. The first thing I would do is decide how important basketball is, and how I and my school are willing (or not) to support it.

Answer those questions honestly and everything else will come.

The smartest thing baseball owners do is keep their books private. That tilts public opinion consistently and stubbornly so that the initial response from many fans is that players are greedy whiners.

The truth is that if players aren’t paid that money doesn’t go to lower ticket prices or cheaper concessions. That money goes directly to the owners, who run a foolproof business model with no risk and (just being honest here) do not add value.

Think about it. What’s the best thing that can be said about an owner? That he hires the best baseball people and supports them and lets them do their job.

Basically: “he’s a terrific owner” is code for “he doesn’t screw it up.”

All of that is true, and then we get to a point here where owners have (smartly and finally) slowed their spending on older free agents without directing that money to other players. They have stopped spending on one end with a CBA that gives them cover to not spend on the other.

It’s doggone genius.

Now, the players are not sympathetic figures here. They are not victims. They signed an awful CBA, essentially giving away a de facto salary cap (which for YEARS they’ve sworn would never happen) for more days off and better travel. It was a stunning defeat, and their own fault.

But I just can’t understand the thinking behind actively rooting for owners over players. Nobody watches a game for owners, and there is literally nothing in it for fans. Owners compete against each other for wealth as much or more than championships, and no owner in the history of the galaxy has diverted money from players to lower ticket prices.

But still the players are seen as greedy to many.

I really don’t understand it.

I did say that, and that’s still mostly the case. I will expand on both of these at some point, but basically two things have changed.

First, there are local efforts beyond the non-efforts from AEG. For a long time, Kansas City’s plan on getting a team was basically “AEG basically promised us and they surely wouldn’t have been lying so let’s have them handle it.”

Well, it turns out they put basically no effort into it and without a local owner wanting to make it work — I talked to Cliff Illig about this last summer — it’s a non-starter. But it feels like the team dream has moved past waiting for AEG to be the angel. At some point, I hope to expand on that.

Second, there are always teams looking to move. Kansas City has been used before, and a repeat is likelier than a successful steal, but there’s always some level of interest. I’ll expand on that relatively soon.

I want to be clear here. I still believe it’s more likely that the 2-year-old boy who sleeps on the bottom bunk in my house grows up to be a lights out late inning relief pitcher than it is he has a local NBA or NHL team to root for*.

* Full disclosure, though: he’s left-handed, and almost 3.

There are just too many factors going against us. Oversaturation. Lack of apparent local ownership interest. Sprint Center is a good building, but now more than a decade old. Lack of major corporate sponsorships. There’s very little hockey culture here, and it might be generous to call Kansas City’s NBA interest passive.

But leagues expand, teams move, and circumstances change. I guess my read on it has changed slightly. I used to believe that landing a team here would be the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.

I don’t think that’s true anymore. Close to the craziest. But not quite the craziest.

I’ve seen a 23-year-old guy in his fourth full year of playing football win NFL MVP, for crying out loud. Actually, he’ll have enough money soon to buy a team.

I’m kidding. I think.

You let me dream!

I would approach it the same way I do whenever I don’t know anything*: I would bug the holy bejeezus out of people.

* Stop laughing!

I would talk to writers who cover the league, scouts and executives who work in the league, and try to talk my bosses into three trips: to New York and the commissioner’s office, a week in Oklahoma City to see how they did it, and the NBA Finals.

The NBA is a pretty fascinating entity, on many levels. The storylines are often absurd, and chock full of weird personal drama, but everyone seems good with it, like it’s just sort of part of the brand.

The athletes are amazing, and often more willing to speak their minds than in other sports. For a sports columnist, that’ll do just fine.

Kansas City is in a great place. Downtown has turned over so positively and thoroughly, it’s really incredible. My wife and I moved out of downtown in the fall of 2012, and it was ramping up then, but I think all the time about how different it is now.

All that said, I think it’s also true that a lot of cities have transformed over that time. The economy has been strong and after the recession it seems there was a sort of slingshot effect in a lot of places. Nashville is often used as the example, but go to Detroit sometime. The difference between now and seven or 10 years ago is stunning.

I don’t say that to poo-poo the progress here locally. I only say it as a reminder that things are relative, and that some of the growth here is riding a national wave that has lifted all boats and how is that for a mixed metaphor?

I say it, basically, to point out that Kansas City shouldn’t be satisfied.

The new airport is coming. That’s a big deal. I love the idea of putting a park over I-670 downtown, and hope the same is done over — or better yet, wiping out — the north loop.

The streetcar expansion is important, but if you’re asking me to pick one thing, it’s going to be even more expansion. Our public transportation and walkability/bikeability* are pretty poor. It’s not a killer right now, in part because of how important cars have always been here, but if you remove yourself from the moment and think a decade down the line you’ll see that this has to change.

* That’s not even a word!

Even if it’s only to use as corporate recruitment a major streetcar expansion would be worth the risk. But if the lines can go east, and maybe even all the way north to the airport, there are real accessibility benefits that could help change the region too.

A million things need to happen to get that far, and none of this is as important as violent crime and the schools, but if I’m reading your question correctly that’s my answer.

This week I’m particularly grateful for the best sports event of the year. College basketball can be hard to love sometimes, and the sport showed it’s ugly side more this year than most, but the tournament is still the tournament. Can’t wait.

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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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