Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Bruce Weber, the future of the Big 12, and about that Royals lineup...

Kansas State head basketball coach Bruce Weber
Kansas State head basketball coach Bruce Weber AP

Baseball has a way of bringing up memories, and remembering old stories, and with this being my 10th spring training down here I can’t help but remember something from my first.

* All told, I have spent the equivalent of about 10 months here, which is great and terrible and weird.

This was 2007, and the Royals were coming off 310 losses in three seasons. There was some new hope, because the new general manager from Atlanta was supposed to be smart, and the old owner had promised new ways, but there were so many messes to clean up.

You might remember that this was Gil Meche’s first year with the Royals.

Meche had signed a $55 million contract, the biggest free-agent deal in club history. In a lot of ways, this was the camp of Meche. I remember the paper’s baseball preview section was all about aces, and what made one, and why they were important, and who qualified as one.

Anyway, Meche was throwing a side session one day on one of about six mounds that are lined up next to each other. His catcher was Matt Tupman, a career minor leaguer* and the kind of player often referred to as “organizational depth.” Next to him is Matt Wright, who is sort of the pitching version of Tupman. Wright is throwing to John Buck, then the big league club’s starting catcher.

* Tupman did make the big leagues in 2008, and got a hit in his only at-bat, meaning he shares a record that will never be broken for highest batting average in baseball history.

Buddy Bell is the manager, and he walks over to the coach overseeing the session.

“What are we doing here?” he asks.

“How do you mean?” the coach responds.

“Gil Meche is our opening-day starter, and you’ve got him throwing to Matt Tupman,” Bell says.

“Mmm-hmm,” the coach responds.

“And Matt Wright is a minor leaguer and you’ve got him throwing to John Buck,” Bell says. “What do you think is wrong here?”

There’s a pause. The coach thinks.

“Well first of all,” he says, “Who the (bleep) is Matt Wright?”

And those were the Royals of 2007.

This week’s reading recommendation is the Atlantic with a new look at a Harvard study about what makes us happy, and the eating recommendation is the reuben at Milwaukee Deli.

As always, thanks for your help, and thanks for reading.

Bruce Weber built Southern Illinois from three straight losing seasons to consecutive conference titles before he left, went 37-2 and won a second consecutive conference title in his second year at Illinois, and won the school’s first conference title in a generation his first year at K-State.

So, yes. I do think he’s a good coach.

There’s a reason I referenced the inkblot test in the column. Weber presents himself poorly, both on the sideline and in news conferences, and that stuff is important in modern college athletics, so his inkblot often ends up looking like a coach who is too sensitive and won’t take responsibly for mistakes.

I happen to believe there is a substance about him that he does a poor job portraying, but whatever, he has enough of a track record that we can make any case we want.

Point: He missed the NCAA Tournament three of his last five seasons at Illinois, when he had his own players.

Counterpoint: He was never going to live up to comparisons to Self, but did have a better season at Illinois than Self had* and has done better at K-State than Illinois has with his replacement.

* In Weber’s second season there, not his first, so even as those were mostly Self’s recruits the question about whose players they were is more ambiguous.

It’s interesting that the column was taken by many as a defense of Weber. I want to be clear, if the headline wasn’t clear enough: he’s behind schedule.

If the rest of the column wasn’t clear enough: he needs to improve. The roster turnover is on him. He professed to learn lessons at Illinois that would help him at K-State, but he’s repeated some of the same mistakes. He’s four years into a job at a major program and complaining about not having playmakers when he kicked the best playmaker he’s recruited here off the team.

But none of this means firing him right now is anything other than self-destructive or reactionary.

And saying he should not be fired right now is different than arguing about whether he should’ve been hired in the first place (which is where a lot of the Weber criticism seems rooted) or that he won’t be fairly fired after next season.

If you want Weber fired, the time was after last season. The roster turnover was largely his own guys, and they had a losing season. Firing him then would’ve meant firing the coach who won a conference title two years earlier, and went to the NCAA Tournament two of his three years there, so it’s not what I’d have done, but whatever. To each his own.

The K-State administration stuck with him, and this season the team has generally outplayed its talent level. The recruiting class is promising. That’s not a fireable offense.

Firing him now means resetting, and essentially wiping away a year-plus of investment in rebuilding the roster. Again, this is not an argument about whether Weber should’ve been hired four years ago, or whether he should’ve been fired last year.

We’re talking about whether a coach who beat the No. 1 team in the country, and lost a lot of close games while playing a lot of freshmen and other players who will be back next year should be fired.

The other question, and reasonable people can disagree here, is whether Weber is good enough for the job. I believe he’s a good coach, and that K-State will be noticeably better next year and that he can — can — be the kind of coach who puts K-State consistently in the top half of the league and NCAA Tournament.

When Weber was hired, I had the same reaction a lot of K-State fans had. It didn’t make sense to me, and I thought the program could do better. The more I learned about him, the more I saw how it could work. I thought Weber would be further along by now, which is why I’m not here saying he’s a great coach and that criticism of him is unfair.

I just think that firing him now would be a mistake.

I was once ridiculed for not saying Dayton Moore and Ned Yost should be fired, too. Crazier things have happened.

Meeting players should be relatively easy. The normal guidelines should be plenty: go early or stay late (but preferably go early), be polite, and you should have good luck. Actually, the best time to get close is probably before the games start, but there’s enough of a laid-back vibe that guys are often accessible before or after games.

As for the rest of the trip, well, Surprise is less than awesome. There are plenty of chain restaurants, but if you want something else, you’re going to have to drive. Eating options around Surprise are such that the nearest Famous Dave’s has four stars on Yelp, and, no, I am not joking about that.

Traffic around Phoenix, particularly this time of year, can be a nightmare. But if you wanted to do more than go to games, I’d suggest looking around at different areas to stay. Scottsdale is cool, and there are parts of Phoenix proper that have a lot going on. I’m not a golfer, but if you are, there are a ton of options. Great hiking. Museums. Lots of day trips, including the Grand Canyon (which would actually be a long day trip, or maybe a two-day trip).

If you like baseball, or otherwise want some nice weather this time of year, it’s a really cool thing. Especially for families.

Yeah, I think it’s a rivalry. It’s not the Border War, it’s not the Red River Rivalry, it’s not the Iron Bowl, but yeah, it’s a rivalry.

Bramlage is significantly fuller and louder than usual for the KU game, and when KU’s players came on the floor to warm up, Brannen Greene is playfully dunking and his teammates are nodding or smiling back into the stands. Bruce Weber was as loud and animated as I can remember on the sideline. That game was played with a higher intensity, and when the game was over, Greene and two teammates are smiling as they fight over the final rebound. These things don’t happen in nondescript games.

The idea that KU wins all the basketball games is simply not true. K-State won the last two in Bramlage. I know about the streak in Manhattan, but that’s done now, and has been for a while. KU has a much better basketball program than K-State, obviously, but the games aren’t a stack of blowouts.

The truth is that KU football is not good enough to be a rival of any FBS school right now, but that doesn’t mean the schools don’t have some rivalry.

A man is free to wear whatever the wants, without my judgment.

As I type these words, I believe there is one and perhaps as many as two pairs of cargo shorts in my closet. Wearing them is a specific conspiracy of events that includes a day off from work, no morning shower, and a quick errand to the grocery store or hardware store or Peanut or something like that, and I don’t want to deal with my phone and keys swinging back and forth in mesh shorts.

Also: I am married, with a small but loud child and another on the way. This means that if you ask me about fashion, you are hopeless, and I mean that with all due respect.

An incomplete list of things that would’ve surprised 2006 Sam, in no particular order:

The Big 12 turns into wet toilet paper. Ten years ago, Nebraska and Oklahoma played in the Big 12 championship football game. Texas went 8-3. A&M was good. Everything was solid, at least on the surface. Now, half the teams from that North Division are gone, along with A&M. Dave Boren was not yet a problem.

Sporting Kansas City would grow into a real thing. Back in 2006, they were the Wizards, and they played in front of tens of thousands of empty seats at Arrowhead. It was untenable, beyond being a slightly bigger version of the Comets.

Clark Hunt would grow into one of the NFL’s most respected and influential leaders. Lamar Hunt passed away in December 2006, and even though Clark had been groomed to take over, he was largely seen by many as the lucky son of a rich man. And, well, he is the lucky son of a rich man, but he’s also a lot more.

Bill Snyder is coaching. That 2006 season was Snyder’s first in retirement, and, actually, K-State looked like it might be in decent shape. Ron Prince got five-star quarterback Josh Freeman to flip a commitment away from Nebraska, and they had their first winning season in three years. Snyder was 67 years old.

Kansas is about to win its 12th consecutive conference championship. In 2006, Kansas was the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, and was only a year removed from the J.R. Giddens stabbing.

The Royals are World Series champions. In 2006, the Royals were on a run of 310 losses in three years. Their last three opening-day starters were Scott Elarton, Jose Lima and Brian Anderson. They had a 19-game losing streak that included the pop fly dropping behind Terrance Long and Chip Ambres, and it’s debatable whether that was their most embarrassing moment. Now we’re reading stories about how the baseball world is copying them.

Nothing would top that. For most of the years between 2006 and Sept. 30, 2014, I believed the Royals would be in the playoffs. They had too much talent. But there’s no way I would’ve expected this.

No.

Well, I mean, sure. Whatever. Write off whoever you want.

But here’s something that’s true: nobody should take any predictions seriously. They’re all flawed, whether done by human or computer, and even the best predictions — the ones backed by reason, or history, or insight, or complicated formulas — are entirely meaningless. As in, they do not have meaning.

The level of sports-righteousness that follows the PECOTA projections, for instance, is completely silly. PECOTA is a good system, an interesting one, but like all attempts at predicting the future remains flawed. One of the more obvious flaws happens to center around the Royals, and no matter how much the people in charge of Baseball Prospectus acknowledge those flaws, people in and around the Royals are going to dismiss the whole thing.

Which is understandable, and predictable, and fine. But I don’t think that makes PECOTA any less interesting or worthy of consideration than other projections, even and perhaps especially compared to predictions made by humans — predictions that are clouded by bias, or groupthink, or a need to stick out from the pack.

I know a lot of this probably comes across as hypocritical from a guy who makes his living in sports media, and that’s fine. It’s what I believe. No prediction system is worth anything more than a quick acknowledgment. They just don’t matter.

But they are fun to talk about, which I guess is the whole point, and they do give athletes something to motivate them or mock, which is also part of the fun.

Every once in a while, when I’m bored, or need a break from the grueling sports writer life of doing these silly weekly timesucks, I’ll try to find a Kansas City Kings shirt. Or even a hat. I’d rock either. And, hopefully someone will send me a link now that we’re talking about this, but I can’t find it.

The closest I’ve found is this shirt, which is awesome, but I’d really like something with the old Kansas City Kings logo. For some reason, it’s a lot easier to find Kansas City Scouts stuff, which is weird, because that franchise was an abomination.

But, anyway, to answer your question, yes, it’s very healthy. An NBA team in Kansas City would make me so, so happy.

Fortunately for all of us, AEG is working hard on the case, and not in any way a pack of misleading suits who never cared about landing a team in the first place.

This is a reference to last week’s Minutes, in which I presented my humble suggestion for the Royals’ lineup:

Alex Gordon, LF

Lorenzo Cain, CF

Eric Hosmer, 1B

Kendrys Morales, DH

Mike Moustakas, 3B

Sal Perez, C

Alcides Escobar, SS

Omar Infante/Christian Colon, 2B

Jarrod Dyson/Paulo Orlando, RF

I did include two qualifiers:

▪  Lineup construction is overrated, but I’m a “Get Your Best Hitters The Most Plate Appearances And Generally Try To Go Left-Right-Left-Right With Them When You Can” guy.

▪ If the season needs Esky Magic, then dammit, give the season Esky Magic.

So, here’s a thing that’s true: including the playoffs, the Royals were 93-54 with Alcides Escobar leading off and 13-18 with anyone else leading off.

This became A Thing, of course, especially toward the end of the season when Ned tried to run a sensible batting order out there — Gordon leading off, Escobar hitting ninth — and the Royals kept losing.

In the last week of the season, Escobar led off on a Sunday afternoon against the Indians and the Royals won. The next two games, in Chicago, Ben Zobrist led off and the Royals lost. Both. The last five games of the regular season, Escobar led off, and the Royals won. All five.

But here’s another thing that’s true: the Royals gave up 3.76 runs per game when Escobar led off, and 5.0 when he didn’t.

So, if you can convince me that the pitchers lock in when Escobar leads off and just unravel when he doesn’t, sure, lead him off all season.

Otherwise, this is very much like the George Brett Effect from a few years ago. Do you remember that? The team was hitting .261 with a .314 on-base and .375 slugging percentage when he took the job as hitting coach in 2013, hit .248/.309/.369 in the two months he had the job, and after he quit a lot of people wanted to credit him for the team’s success.

Numbers can be helpful, is what I’m saying.

A lot of teams can win it all this year. I happen to think North Carolina has the best team, just because they can score so many different ways, but there are logical arguments to make for a lot of teams — Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State and others.

Kansas is playing terrifically. By the time it plays Texas Tech at home for a clinch of at least a share of the Big 12 title, it will have been more than a month since its last loss. The Jayhawks had moments of overwhelming softness, and an inability to respond on the road, and little idea what to do with the big man rotation. All of those issues have been addressed. Landen Lucas is a major reason, but there are other factors, too.

Kansas lacks a go-to player. If there are lottery picks on this team, they are freshmen Carlton Bragg and Chieck Diallo, neither of whom play much. Lucas is a very good rebounder, but not the rim protector that’s anchored some of KU’s best defenses.

But we could do this with a lot of teams. We could list pros and cons like this for anywhere from five to 15 teams, making logical cases why they could win one of the most unpredictable tournaments in major sports. Kansas could win it all and lose in the second round, and neither would be a shock, and you can probably say that about a dozen teams.

According to this, Kansas is the betting co-favorite with Michigan State, with UNC, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Villanova not too far behind. That sounds about right, though at those odds, Oklahoma seems like a terrible bet since they rely so heavily on three-point shooting.

Been too long, I’ll tell you that. I’m a dad with a mortgage now, so I’ve switched to Lean Pockets, which are like 80 percent as good as Hot Pockets. Some of it, I’m sure, is nostalgia because much of my childhood was spent noshing on Hot Pockets, Nutty Bars, and Stouffer’s microwave lasagna.

But they’re not bad. Pepperoni is solid, ham and cheese is better than you think. They have a chicken jalapeño that I want to try, but in general chicken in microwave dishes is terrible, so I’ve never pulled the trigger.

Hmm, I don’t know, 51 percent?

I think he’s a Hall of Famer, and I think he’ll get in, but the voting process is hard to predict. I see that Pro Football Reference lists Allen’s best career comp as Howie Long, and the only player with more career sacks who hasn’t been elected to the Hall of Fame is Jason Taylor, who is not yet eligible. Allen is tied (with Julius Peppers) with 136 sacks, which is more than Lawrence Taylor, Rickey Jackson, Derrick Thomas, and Charles Haley.

But I don’t know that Allen has much beyond that. He played in one Super Bowl, this past season with the Panthers, and lacks moments that demand he be in the Hall. He led the league in sacks twice* but did it for teams that won a total of seven games. Maybe that stuff shouldn’t matter, but it does.

* And only Michael Strahan ever got more than Allen’s 20 in 2011.

I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but I tend to think of Peppers and DeMarcus Ware as better players, and those are Allen’s contemporaries. In the end, I think the high sack total will get him in, but not quickly. He’ll have to wait his turn.

Very weird. I just don’t see how that work.

Look, I’m still working my way back from realignment fatigue from the last round, so I’m not fired up about this at the moment, but I do feel strongly about this:

What happened five years ago, combined with conversations with people around the league, has made it very clear that the only thing that matters is what Texas and Oklahoma want.

Presidents and chancellors and ADs from Kansas and K-State and TCU and everywhere else can say what they want, but ultimately, they are most interested in stability, and stability is in what makes Texas and Oklahoma happy. There are similar dynamics in other leagues, but not to the extent of the Big 12.

This is part of why administrators can gripe as much as they want in private — and the idea of having commissioner Bob Bowlsby speak for the league was a good one — but OU president David Boren is still going to say pretty much whatever he wants, no matter how much it hurts the league. Dennis Dodd reported an industry source wondered if Boren was trying to destabilize the league enough to get OU out of the grant of rights and into a different league

I don’t know whether to believe expansion will happen. I understand why West Virginia wants a travel partner, and I understand the desire for more “inventory,” but I don’t believe that 12 is better than 10 if the extra schools aren’t to standard. The league can hold a championship game right now if they want, and if the best the league could do in expansion is BYU and Cincinnati, then what’s the point? You’d be adding mouths to feed, and logistical challenges, and for what? BYU brings it’s own unique requirements to a league that’s already struggling to keep everyone happy.

So, I don’t know. I’ve thought about this stuff way too much, and I’m trying not to think about it more. This college basketball season is fun. Baseball is starting. Let me put this off a little while longer.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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