THE BERNIE BITS
Good day to you. I hope you had a pleasant weekend.
Let’s get started, shall we?
The best things to happen in STL-area sports over the weekend:
1–The Blues refocused and rediscovered their characteristic style of hockey, winning two in a row at San Jose.
2–Jaden Schwartz returned to the Blues lineup and immediately reestablished a strong presence in their two victories over the Sharks. It’s not that Schwartz had any flashy numbers or eye-opening metrics — he didn’t — but you could just tell that the Blues were a different team with Jaden out there.
3–Improved goaltending. In order, Blues goaltenders Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso each started a game on the 2-0 weekend. They combined to stop 51 of 54 shots at 5-on-5, a save percentage of .944. This included 14 of 16 stops on high-danger shots.
4–After a slow start in spring-training games, Cardinals rookie outfielder Dylan Carlson is heating up. Nothing profound to add here; it’s just good to see.
The four worst things that happened in STL-area sports over the weekend:
1-The Blues lost all-purpose forward Oskar Sundqvist to a season-ending knee injury, a torn ACL. And after playing in two games following his lengthy absence from the lineup with a concussion, center Tyler Bozak was scratched Saturday due to an undisclosed upper-body injury. The pain never ends for the Blues.
2–Missouri lost to Oklahoma 72-68 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The positivity of an early 14-7 lead was dissolved by questionable substitution patterns, erratic shot selection, another disappearing act by Xavier Pinson (he got benched), and the inability to solve OU’s packed-in defense. After making six of their first seven shots the Tigers went 16 for 51 (31.3%) the rest of the way. And a few late three-pointers couldn’t overcome Missouri’s astonishingly bad shooting percentage (35.5%) on two-point attempts.
After a 13-3 start to the season and the No. 10 ranking in the AP poll, the Tigers lost seven of their final 10 games. Because of glaring self-destructive tendencies the Tigers left too many wins on the table; in their 10 losses they were outscored by 65 points in the final 10 minutes (and one overtime) of the game. This was the sixth consecutive defeat in NCAA tournament play for the MU program. More on that later.
3–Saint Louis U. lost to Mississippi State in the first round of the NIT. It was a sad season for the Billikens; we’ll never know what they would have done with their beautiful start to a season that held such promise before the Covid-19 struck. Except for the four-game winning streak that began Feb. 6 with an 11-point win over St. Bonaventure, it was never quite the same after the 32-day shutdown. SLU was 7-1 before Covid, and 7-6 after. Yes, it’s only sports. The devastation of Covid-19 is a global tragedy that’s taken lives, and ruined lives. But on a much lesser level the damage caused by the virus was a disheartening turn for SLU. Without the interruption, I believe SLU makes it to the NCAA tournament with a real chance to win a game or two. But again, we’ll never know.
4–Illinois, a No. 1 seed, was upset by No. 8 seed Loyola in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t that much of an upset, though. Loyola is outstanding, having entered the tournament as the No. 9 team at KenPom, and at No. 10 in the NCAA NET ranking system. Just because the NCAA selection committee disrespected Loyola, it doesn’t mean the Ramblers’ 13-point thumping of Illinois qualifies as some sort of cheesy “Hoosiers” script fairy tale. The irony? In the predictable effort to under seed a mid-major team from the Missouri Valley Conference, the selection committee set up Illinois with a much tougher opponent than a No. 1 seed would normally face in the second round.
I have to say this: as a fan I wanted Illinois to go far. This was an entertaining, stylish, intelligent team. I liked and admired them. But I’m happy for Loyola Chicago. That’s for a couple of reasons: (A) Coach Porter Moser — a coaching son of Rick Majerus — and (B) the Ramblers’ MVC affiliation. As a fan this game put me in a tough spot, and I’d have no complaints about the outcome. Loyola was the superior team that chewed up the Illinois offense with an excellent defensive game plan. With Loyola’s defenders invading and disrupting Illinois’ ball-screen offense on the perimeter — then racing into the paint to swarm Kofi Coburn — the Big Ten champs were rattled early and could never get settled. Only 58 points for Illinois, a season low. Only 10 shot attempts, nine points and six turnovers by Ayo Dosunmo. Yes, Loyola Chicago did that.
And how can anybody root against Loyola big guy Cameron Krutwig? He wrecked the Illini’s season with 19 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals. As Pat Forde noted in Sports Illustrated, Krutwig looks like a Chicago bus driver. True. And on Sunday in Indianapolis, Krutwig drove the bus over the Illini.
READING TIME, 7 MINUTES
In the MLB Pipeline farm system rankings for 2021, the Cardinals came in at No. 17 among the 31 teams. That’s up a bit from the 2020 midseason ranking of 18th. “While Dylan Carlson will likely graduate early in the 2021 season, Matthew Liberatore and Nolan Gorman are legitimate, big-time prospects,” the Pipeline notes. “In addition, the Cardinals have several high-ceiling prospects, such as Masyn Winn and Edwin Nunez, who could really elevate the system’s ranking if everything clicks in their development.”
The Blues (16-10-5) are scheduled to meet Vegas tonight, opening a stretch of playing 19 of their final 24 or 25 games against Vegas, Colorado and Minnesota. (The 25th game would be a rescheduled contest of the recent postponement with Los Angeles.) The Golden Knights, Avalanche and Wild had a combined 58-25-1 record through Sunday … related note: 9 of the Blues’ 16 victories this season have come against San Jose and Anaheim, teams that have combined for only 20 wins so far. The Sharks and Ducks rank among the bottom six NHL teams in points percentage … the Blues are 9-1-2 against the Sharks and Ducks and 7-9-3 against other teams in the Western division including a combined 5-7-2 mark vs. Arizona and Los Angeles.
This tidbit from ESPN offers a warning about the 2021 season for pitchers. Injuries are on the rise and the trend is likely to continue. Wrote Alden Gonzalez: “There were a combined 235 stints on the injured list by pitchers from 2018 to 2019. In 2020 alone, when COVID-19 forced spring training to shut down and several players ramped up too quickly for the summer restart, there were 197 non-COVID IL stints by pitchers, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.”
About the loss of Oskar Sundqvist: It hurts the Blues, because Oskar has many dimensions to his game, is a tenacious and fearless competitor, works the special teams, and can play on any line. And my intention here isn’t to be the grumpy guy … but … when Sundqvist was on the ice this season the Blues were outscored 11-5 at 5-on-5 play, 13-7 at even strength and 23-13 at all strengths. The Blues had only 44.6% of the shots on goal during Sundqvist shifts at 5-on-5. He also had the poorest plus-minus (-6) among Blues forwards. I just wanted to put that out there. Sorry. That said, Sundqvist is a constant with his energy, intensity and consistency of effort. He blocks shots and rams opponents with hits, and gets his teammates fired up. And there is value in that.
In an interview with The Ringer, Chicago White Sox starter Lance Lynn reflected on his early years in St. Louis. “In my St. Louis days I was very undervalued,” Lynn said. “I think that comes with some of the staffs I pitched on, and the way that I was maybe not pushed to the front of things in the St. Louis media. That comes with being a younger kid, and you pitch with guys like Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.”
Lynn savored being part of a winner and wants that again in Chicago. He’s reunited with his first big-league manager Tony La Russa and is part of a very talented White Sox roster: “I won the World Series my rookie year (2011) and was in the NLCS the next year. Third season in the World Series, fourth season in the NLCS. And since then, I haven’t gotten past the divisional round when I’ve been in the playoffs,” Lynn said. “When you look back at it 10 years later and haven’t been able to have that opportunity on the same scale again, it makes you appreciate the luxury I had of being brought in with that awesome, awesome group. But it also shows how hard it is to get there. So when you get a chance, like we have this year, you have to enjoy and embrace it, because you never know when you’re going to get it again. You can’t just think it’s going to keep happening.”
As for what he’s telling White Sox teammates about La Russa, Lynn is keeping it simple. “That was 10 years ago,” Lynn said. “I’ve told the guys from the get-go that Tony is all about one thing: Do what you’ve got to do to help your teammates and try to win each game that you play. If you do that, he’s got no problem with you.”
No conclusions yet, because as I write this we’re ready for another full day of NCAA Tournament basketball that will set the final field for the Sweet 16 round. But it was a bumpy first three days for the Big Ten and the Big 12, the two highest-rated conferences in the land according to KenPom. Representatives from the two leagues were knocked out of the competition by opponents that included Abilene Christian, Oregon State, North Texas, Oral Roberts. (I decline to put Loyola Chicago on this list.)
Going into Monday’s set of games, the Big Ten and Big 12 have lost a No. 1 seed (Illinois), a No. 2 (Ohio State), a couple of No. 3s (West Virginia and Texas), and a pair of No. 4 seeds (Purdue and Oklahoma State.) The two conferences sent 16 teams combined into the tournament; 10 already are gone from the bracket — including six that were seeded among the top 16 teams in the overall bracket.
And brace yourselves for more potential jolts on Monday as five teams — Michigan, Iowa, Maryland, Kansas and Oklahoma — get back in action. From the two most powerful conferences, only Baylor has made it through to the Sweet 16 so far. Can any survivors from the Big Ten and Big 12 follow the Bears? Or will more be ejected from the tournament?
Don’t ask me to explain the Pac 12’s success in this tournament. I have no idea. What the hell has gotten into Oregon State? Actually, the Beavers weren’t bad during the season and rank No. 54 at KenPom, right near the spots where you’ll see Mizzou (No. 47) and SLU (No. 52.) But Oregon State’s roll may be slowed by Loyola Chicago in the Sweet 16.
According to PlayoffStatus.com the Blues have the NHL’s toughest remaining schedule … as of Monday morning the site gives the Blues a 55% chance of NOT making the playoffs, a 26% chance of finishing fourth in the division, and a 14% shot at finishing third. But even a fourth-place showing would get the Blues to the postseason … watch out for Colorado; the Avs have won six straight and are 10-2-1 since Feb. 26. The Avs have outscored opponents 51-27 in their last 13 games.
My friend Will Leitch wrote a rundown of “The one player each team can’t do without: for MLB.com. For the Cardinals, he selected starting pitcher Jack Flaherty. “The bigger worries have been about the lineup lately, but the Cardinals’ rotation depth is thinning,” Leitch wrote. “They need Flaherty to be a Cy Young contender again.”
Since Missouri’s last NCAA Tournament victory back in 2010, a total of 132 Division 1 teams have claimed at least one win in the tourney. And 28 have won two or more games.
Here are just some of the teams that managed at least one NCAA Tournament triumph during Mizzou’s drought: Yale, Harvard, Wofford, Texas-San Antonio, Robert Morris, Radford, North Texas, NC A&T, UNC Asheville, Mount St. Mary’s, Morehead State, Mercer, UMBC, Marshall, Liberty, Lehigh, James Madison, Holy Cross, Hampton, Georgia State, UC-Davis, UC-Irvine, Cal Poly, Belmont, Little Rock, Albany, Abilene Christian, Texas Southern, Stephen F. Austin, Saint Mary’s, Oral Roberts, North Dakota State, Norfolk State, Murray State, Middle Tennessee, Buffalo, Ohio and Florida Gulf Coast.
Since Missouri became part of the SEC starting in the 2012-2013 season, 10 of the 14 Conference teams have combined to win 61 NCAA Tournament games. The only four programs that have been shut out during that time are Missouri, Mississippi State, Georgia and Vanderbilt.
From 2011 through the first two rounds of this year’s big dance, five teams from the St. Louis-based Missouri Valley Conference have combined to win 20 games in the tourney. And Loyola Chicago is still going, having advanced to the Sweet 16 over the weekend.
Thanks for reading …
Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.