Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Why Kansas is the best team left in the NCAA tournament; and Wade Davis or Steph Curry?

KU’s Wayne Selden sent down a dunk that slapped UConn’s Amida Brimah in the face during the second half of the Jayhawks 73-61 win over UConn Saturday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Des Moines.
KU’s Wayne Selden sent down a dunk that slapped UConn’s Amida Brimah in the face during the second half of the Jayhawks 73-61 win over UConn Saturday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Des Moines. rsugg@kcstar.com

I am well aware that like everyone else, I know nothing, and that this fact is so self-evident as to make this opening disclaimer unnecessary but there it is anyway and here is what I’m disclaiming:

Kansas is the best team remaining in the NCAA Tournament.

I realize this is not an especially strong stance to take, considering the Jayhawks are now the betting favorite, but figured I’d mention it here anyway because it seems a little truer every time KU plays.

The overriding reason KU is the best remaining team is that it has the most diverse ways to win a game.

North Carolina doesn’t defend like Kansas. Virginia — undervalued nationally, I think — plays a slower pace that lessens its margin for error. Oklahoma doesn’t defend, and lacks depth. Oregon’s defense can be had. Villanova’s interior defense is just OK. Duke is inconsistent, and vulnerable defensively. And those are the “other” best teams left.

Kansas has flaws too, of course. But they can also score from all parts of the floor, have good defenders on the perimeter and inside, insulate themselves from foul trouble with depth, and have proven themselves at their best in tough games.

Now, obviously they can lose. If you took Kansas and gave me the other 15, I would feel very good about my bet.

But, you know, they are the best team, which is something.

This week’s eating recommendation is the cheesesteak and tater tots at The Lunch Box, and the reading recommendation is John Woodrow Cox on A Marine’s Convictions, a terrifically told story about a flawed sexual assault investigation.

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

Northern Iowa, unfortunately.

That was tough to watch. Uncomfortable. Too raw. The feeling of watching a car wreck like that in what was basically slow motion was terrible and gripping and sad. My wife kept asking me to turn the channel, and I kept being unable to do it. Ugh.

There were so many parts of that that were terrible. It was a failure on every level, from coaching to execution to plan. They broke the pressure with that runout dunk, and you think they’re going to shake off the collapse, but then it goes back to bad. The premature half-court shot. The rally to regain the lead in overtime, only to blow that, too.

But there was so much else, too. People are calling it the best first weekend in NCAA Tournament history, and I have no idea how you quantify something like that, particularly so close to the moment, but it was bonkers. Adam Woodbury’s push-off-and-putback to put Iowa over Temple. Rex Pflueger’s putback that gave Notre Dame a last second win over Stephen F. Austin. Paul Jespersen’s — the same guy who shot the half-courter too early against Texas A&M — half-court winner against Texas. Bronson Koenig’s winner for Wisconsin from the corner against Xavier.

On and on and on. Basically, it had everything but some true Cinderella — Stephen F. or Northern Iowa would’ve qualified — making it through.

It really was incredible, sort of the real time example of why so many of us adore the NCAA Tournament, and believe it to be the country’s greatest sports event, despite all the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies of major college athletics.

Without question.

Reasonable minds can disagree, or at least see different shades of gray here, but to me a sports choke is when an athlete or team blows an opportunity by performing scared or hesitant or is otherwise mentally locked up and twisted with thoughts of failure. Those feelings are much more common in favorites, but the only way UNI’s collapse could be a better example of a comprehensive choke would be if they were favored to win the game.

Nate made this point on the Border Patrol — it was Jean van de Velde. I can’t think of a better example. Rany Jazayerli pointed this out — the collapse was so unimaginable that it broke Bill James’ formula on when a lead is safe.

If I knew someone in that program, I would drive to their home and offer them a hug and cocoa. If I was someone in that program, I wouldn’t answer the door because I’d be under the covers hiding. Ugh. I feel so terrible for them, they don’t deserve this.

And in a very twisted way, this is what makes the tournament so awesome.

Oh, man, no offense but I hate this idea. Not reseeding it adds to the unpredictability. I love when a bracket opens up for a team, or doesn’t, and what that contributes to the drama.

This year isn’t a great example, because there aren’t many real underdogs left, but I like the idea that either 11th-seeded Gonzaga or No. 10 Syracuse — which shouldn’t have made the field, but did after Jim Boeheim essentially blamed his team’s struggles on his top assistant, like a worm — will play for a spot in the Final Four.

But here’s how I’d rank the 16 left:

1. Kansas: I love their diversity, with all the different ways they can win.

2. Virginia: good offensively and defensively, and Malcolm Brogdon is one of the best three or four players left in the tournament.

3. North Carolina: have been better defensively, but I still worry about Marcus Paige’s consistency.

4. Indiana: underseeded. Yogi Ferrell is a stud.

5. Oklahoma: still think they’re vulnerable because of defense, and reliance on outside shooting.

6. Oregon: well coached, and good balance, but I worry about them defensively.

7. Miami: never would’ve believed Angel Rodriguez could do that against Fred VanVleet.

8. Villanova: maybe this is too low for them, but I’m skeptical.

9. Duke: perhaps the most unpredictable team left. Good enough to win it all, flawed and lacking enough to lose by 15 to Oregon.

10. Maryland: Kansas is a bad matchup for them.

11. Iowa State: wish I could have them higher, but they don’t defend enough, and are we sure Steve Prohm isn’t going to be fired in three years?

12. Gonzaga: college basketball is more fun when Gonzaga is a double-digit seed. It just is.

13. Texas A&M: it is my belief that A&M fans would rather their football recruiting class be ranked five spots higher than see their basketball team go to the Final Four.

14. Wisconsin: I don’t know the guy, at all, but I feel good for Greg Gard. A lifer who is taking advantage of his chance.

15. Notre Dame: Mike Brey’s beard looks weird, like he’s got a VIP booth at some nightclub reserved after the game.

16. Syracuse: they shouldn’t be in this tournament, even still.

More rankings!

1. UNC-Indiana: ACC champion against the Big Ten regular-season champ. Two bluebloods, if that’s your thing. Tom Crean coaching with nothing to lose, which is always fun. Roy Williams coaching with something to lose, which is always interesting.

2. Virginia-Iowa State: the Cyclones can play beautiful offense, which Virginia’s defense rarely allows. With Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Georges Niang and Monte Morris, plenty of star power, too.

3. Texas A&M-Oklahoma: because Buddy Hield, that’s why.

4. Oregon-Duke: two flawed but talented and well-coached teams.

5. Miami-Villanova: love the matchups in the backcourt.

6. Kansas-Maryland: could easily be third on this list, and not just because Mark Turgeon can make his case to be the first phone call if/when Bill Self leaves for the NBA.

7. Gonzaga-Syracuse: Kyle Wiltjer was a seldom-used freshman on that ridiculous 2012 Kentucky team with Anthony Davis. That was a long time ago.

8. Wisconsin-Notre Dame: I would prefer both of these teams to lose.

This is absolutely a personal preference thing, and a lot depends on whether you’ve seen something like this in person, how you feel about the Final Four site, whether you know a lot of people going, stuff like that.

But, in general, if you’ve never been, and your team is in it, sure, absolutely, you’d have fun, as long as you’re aware of and comfortable with a few caveats.

First, you’re going to either pay way too much for good tickets, or buy mediocre/bad seats and not really be able to see the game. You’re going so you can say you were there, in the building, and then be able to (maybe) celebrate on site.

This year’s Final Four is in Houston, a city I apparently cannot get away from, and a city that isn’t all that awesome, if we’re being honest. This is not New Orleans, is what I’m saying. Also, the dome there is a fairly terrible place for basketball. They will sell more than 70,000 seats, which is great for publicity and greater for the not-for-profit NCAA’s profits, but makes for a whole mess of terrible seats from which to watch basketball.

It’s worth going once, at least. But if I were a big KU basketball fan, saving the money and watching at a bar somewhere in Lawrence would be awfully tempting.

Wayne Selden is a fascinating player. He came to Kansas as a five-star, top-10-ish recruit, and will leave* as more of a program player. He has the look of an elite athlete — and obviously has the highlights to back that up — but is oddly lacking in lateral quickness, which makes it harder for him to defend and create his own shot off the dribble. He was a projected first round pick as a freshman, but will almost certainly be drafted in the second round.

* I happen to believe he’s leaving after this season, but we’ll see.

He does, however, seem to respond to slights. He was motivated against UConn, and especially effective after hitting shots early, which always gives him a boost of energy and confidence. I’ve heard it said about Selden that he can be KU’s best scorer and shooter, except when he thinks he’s KU’s best scorer and shooter.

The best thing for Selden is that he doesn’t have to be that guy for KU. It’s not on him. During most of the regular season, I was as guilty as anyone of thinking that KU’s lack of an elite scorer was a weakness, but I’ve since done a 180 there. I think it can be a strength, because they start four guys who can go for 20 without playing above their heads. If two of them are scoring, they should be OK. If three are scoring, they have an advantage.

I suppose this is a long and winding way of saying yes, Selden is in a great position to have a big game on Thursday — unless he goes into it believing he needs to have a big game on Thursday.

Perhaps. But the point of that column was that this was the year the Big 12 was supposed to be the best basketball league in the country, and by a fair margin. It’s hard to imagine that being the case again next year.

Depending on what Isaiah Taylor does — and I suspect he’ll leave — the Big 12 will have zero members of the all-conference first team back next year. Oklahoma won’t be as good. Iowa State loses so much. West Virginia won’t be as good. Baylor loses a lot.

So the year to end a decade of underperformance was this year. Baylor and West Virginia aren’t helping, but with Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa State through, it’s still salvageable. Get two teams through to the Elite Eight, and one in the Final Four, and nobody can say it was a bad showing.

Get more than that — or, I would argue, a team in the Final Four that isn’t Kansas — and it’s a good run.

But if Oklahoma and Iowa State lose their next games, even if Kansas makes it through, you’re going to hear more talk about how the league is overrated, and about how it’s KU and a bunch of pretenders.

In a landslide victory, these jokes were by far the most popular entries to the Minutes, which I suppose is what the Minutes deserve.

Well, there you go.

Bumming.

We talk about this a lot here, but that program is in such a bad spot. They’re not going to fire Bruce Weber, and I happen to think that’s the right decision, even as I know it goes against what is at least a vocal minority of K-State fans. After Underwood took the Oklahoma State job, if Weber flops next year and K-State is in the market for a coach again, the anger and frustration will be justified.

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I think there’s a way through this, and that being known as a place that supports its coaches is a good thing in the long-term. These things are so fleeting, and if Weber wins 25 games and finishes third or fourth in a down Big 12 — entirely possible, by the way — the conversation turns. John Currie is supporting his guy, and he may end up regretting that, but at least for now I think his motivations are understandable and perhaps even admirable.

But this has many symptoms of a big ol’ mess of a problem for K-State next year.

I’m assuming people are thinking about Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Kendrys Morales, Yordano Ventura, Wade Davis, Ian Kennedy and some others.

But here’s my case for Alcides Escobar:

First, the Royals have no viable backup or alternative, not unless you think Raul Mondesi is ready to play everyday shortstop in the big leagues. Escobar plays, almost literally, everyday. He is a terrific defensive shortstop when he’s focused. He has never had a serious injury. He turned 29 years old in December.

Second, he was also a dreadful hitter last year. Of all the places where the Royals can make up for Ben Zobrist’s departure and possible regressions-to-the-mean for Moustakas and Morales, Escobar may be the most under-discussed, if you’ll allow me to make up a word.

The Royals essentially have three players they cannot replace, and it’s not a coincidence that these players are up the middle — Cain in center, Escobar at short, and Perez behind the plate. It seems as if most are aware of Cain and Perez, but don’t think as much about Escobar, who also has the added value of possible extra offense.

I’ve had it many times in Memphis, and here just once. I’m always a little leery about going to a restaurant shortly after it opens, and when I ate there — three weeks ago, maybe four — they were still working some things out.

But judged in that context, I was relieved and ecstatic. The chicken was delicious, basically what I remember from the Memphis store, or at least close enough. The line moved quick enough, the service was friendly.

I will continue to make this point: if you live in a certain part of the city, the locations of the stores are such that you can have a lights-out dinner at home by getting takeout chicken from Gus’ and sides from Stroud’s.

There has to be more than is being reported, because from the outside, it looks like management is making a completely reasonable request and that the players are acting like entitled brats.

Chris Sale has referenced being lied to, and depending on exactly what he’s referring to, that could explain the reaction. But there are a lot of questions, a lot of unknowns. Maybe some players have quietly complained to management, but aren’t comfortable enough to let the rest of the team know their feelings. Maybe Kenny Williams did, in fact, go back on a promise to his players. And where exactly is Robin Ventura in all of this?

Obviously, this is a sensitive subject. Rustin did a good piece on this. You want players to be happy, and comfortable, and there are a million reasons to not just accept kids in the clubhouse but to welcome it.

Somewhere, though, there is a line that needs to be held and for the most part, I think the Royals do this well by basically cutting it off at batting practice. As a small aside, this is one of the things I have in mind when I talk about how well Ned Yost deals with his players and handles the clubhouse. The rule is well-intentioned, and the players respect it, for the most part. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Kansas, for sure. To me, the Jayhawks are the overall favorite. We’ve been over this.

Now, I happen to also believe that Oklahoma is ripe for a loss. I don’t think they’ve played a particularly good team yet, and only beat VCU by four. They don’t defend, don’t have depth, and are done like dinner if they’re not hitting outside shots.

That said, it’s interesting that the Big 12, at least in my opinion, has the best team and the best player remaining in the tournament.

I’ll be very surprised if Iowa State beats Virginia. Very surprised. That’s a bad matchup for them.

I love this question, and only partly because it’s funny to think of these two in comparison.

Steph Curry is, basically, the epitome of joy, boundless energy and wild shots and constant shimmies and a pregame routine that is growing in legend. Wade Davis is, basically, a martian sent from outer space, here to eliminate big league hitters in the most ruthlessly efficient manner possible. Whoever programmed him did not leave room for joy, only cold-blooded domination.

Last year, including the playoffs, Wade Davis allowed even one run in just seven of 75 appearances. That is essentially the exact success rate (90.7 percent) as Steph Curry at the free throw line (90.6 percent this year, and 90.1 percent over his career).

A couple things: Curry isn’t closing games out on the free throw line, and among the seven games in which Davis allowed a run, he did not give up the lead in three, and the Royals ended up winning two of the others.

So I’m taking Davis, but it’s a trick question, because he’s an alien and Steph Curry is a human basketball player.

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