BERNIE BITS

Five thoughts on Mizzou’s 81-78 home victory over No. 6 Illini

1. Obviously the Mizzou bench was a positive force, outscoring the Fighting Illini reserves by 26-14, making all 10 free throw attempts, and muscling for a 14-5 advantage in rebounding. And given the off-form performances of starters Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon, the Tigers needed every moment of excellence from Javon Pickett and Mitchell Smith

1a. Just a few more words on the rebounding: It’s important to give this some context. The boards were a key battleground in this one, and Illinois entered the fray as one of the more dominant rebounding teams in the nation. But the Tigers controlled the boards. When the Tigers snatched defensive rebounds, they quickly motored into a fast transition game. And by the way: gotta love that coach Cuonzo Martin has loosened it up, encouraging his players to attack with a faster pace, and the tactic is effective and entertaining. 

2. As expected Illini star guard Ayo Dosunmu was magnificent, and extra-big man Kofi Cockburn brought the thunder inside. But Missouri overcame the terrific two with the superior overall team play. 

3. I think Illini had a comedown after a 10-day stretch of schedule that had them wrestling and losing to Baylor, going on the road for an emphatic win at Duke, then making the trek to CoMo. But this will steel Illinois for Big Ten play and beyond. 

4. Missouri made 26 of 31 free throws. (Good.) Illinois made only 17 of 28 free throws. (Bad.) There’s your ballgame. And for coach Brad Underwood’s team to max out on what can be a memorably great season, the Illini must start making more free throws. Their FT percentage of 67.9 percent ranks 101st nationally, and Illinois made only 27 of 44 free throws (61.3%) in its losses to Baylor and Missouri. 

5. Finally, here’s the best part of Mizzou’s 5-0 start: The offense is clicking, and that is both overdue and necessary. You can always count on Coach Martin’s teams to dig in and play tenacious defense. In his first four seasons, including the early days of this one, here’s where the Tigers ranked among the 350 D-1 teams in defense according to KenPom: 43rd, 51st, 71st, and now 46th. But the Missouri offense has struggled to flow. It wasn’t a problem in Martin’s first season; the Tigers were 58th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. No coincidence, they made the NCAA Tournament. But in the next two seasons the Tigers ranked 127th and 150th, respectively. The outcome: two consecutive losing seasons. 

But a deep, experienced team is trying to change that. After defeating Illinois, Missouri ranks 31st among 300-plus teams nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. They’re 45th in effective field goal percentage (55.3.) They’re 69th in offensive rebound percentage, 83rd in free throws per field goal attempt, and No. 9n two-point shooting percentage (61.2%.) 

This is a potentially significant development. 

Congrats to Martin and Mizzou for jumping into the new AP Top 25 at No. 16.

READING TIME 5 MINUTES: 

Mizzou football alum Drew Lock broke out of an extended slump by shredding the Panthers defense in Denver’s 32-27 win at Carolina. Lock completed 21 of 27 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns. The second-year starter had five completions of 25 or more yards, and his 149.5 passer rating rating in the game was third highest in franchise history, behind Peyton Manning and John Elway. Moreover, that 149.5 passer rating was the best in a road game in Broncos history. Lock ended a streak of being intercepted in seven consecutive games. 

Could this be John Mozeliak’s final season as the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations? No evidence. Just wondering. 

This isn’t a commentary on politics, but I keep score and run stats for a living. And in this note I  can’t help but connect politics and sports. But through Sunday, the legal challenges mounted by President Trump and his allies had produced a 1-59 record in the courts. I haven’t seen anything like this since my friend and former radio colleague Rick Venturi had a 1-31-1 record in three seasons as Northwestern’s from 1978-1980. 

Best thing about getting back to work, other than the pay and sense of purpose? I got away from Hallmark channel Christmas movies. I had turned into a Hallmark Christmas movie addict. I guess it could have been worse.

I wanted Lovie Smith to be successful and turn Illinois football into a winner. He’s one of the finest men I’ve known during a sports-media career that dates back to 1980. And Smith was given ample time; it just didn’t work out. (Five seasons, 17-39 record, and poor results in recruiting.)

What’s next? Bruce Feldman (The Athletic) offered several candidates as possibilities including Lance Leipold (Buffalo), Sean Lewis (Kent State), Jeff Monken (Army), former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema (New York Giants assistant), and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Just an opinion: Illinois doesn’t need a big-name coach. The Illini need a head coach that is a nonstop energy generator who will recruit like a maniac. 

On This Day in St. Louis Sports History: Former Cardinals outfielder (1967-68) Roger Maris died from cancer at the age of 51. Maris loved being a Cardinal and Cardinals fans loved him back …  in 1995, the Cardinals traded pitchers Allen Watson, Rich DeLucia and Doug Creek to the Giants in exchange for SS Royce Clayton … in 1998, the Cardinals went for another shortstop in the trade market, acquiring Edgar Renteria from the Marlins in exchange for three players including pitcher Braden Looper … Renteria was an important performer for the Cardinals over six seasons (1999-2004), anchoring the infield of four postseason teams. Edgar averaged 12 homers, 34 doubles, 75 RBIs and 25 steals per season in STL and made three NL All-Star teams, won two gold gloves, and earned three silver slugger awards. He absolutely deserves a place in the Cardinals Hall of Fame … on this day in 2000 the  Cards traded third baseman Fernando Tatis and pitcher Britt Reames to the Montreal Expos for pitchers Steve Kline and Dustin Hermanson … finally: in 2007 the Cardinals traded Jim Edmonds to the Padres for a third base prospect, David Freese. Freese emerged as all-time St. Louis hometown hero with his remarkable performance in the 2011 postseason. Leading the 18-game charge to the Cardinals’ 11th World Series title, Freese batted .397 with a 1.258 OPS, five homers, 14 extra-base hits, 12 runs and 21 RBIs. He was voted MVP of the NLCS and World Series MVP.  Or I just could have summed it all up with this: GAME SIX. 

With Auburn firing head coach Guz Malzhan — a move that comes with an astonishing $21.5 million buyout — it’s time for me to update the Nick Saban Victim List. Since Saban took control of a listing Alabama program in 2007, he’s won five national championships and sculpted an overall record of 167-23 (.879.) Saban’s relentless success has caused tremendous impatience in the rest of the SEC, as programs constantly scramble to challenge Saban. 

And if you happen to be a coach of a rival program, here’s the reality: you have to beat Saban, keep up with Saban, or even outdo Saban — or you’ll be gone. And that’s absurd; no SEC coach can out-Saban Coach Saban except for the occasional upset. Malzhan got shoved out despite going 3-5 vs. Saban, which is better than most. LSU fired Les Miles even though he won a national championship there … but he lost to Saban too many times. Auburn fired Gene Chizik even though he won a national championship. (But didn’t beat Saban enough.) Malzhan led Auburn to a spot in the national championship game in his first season (2013) … but so what? 

Here’s the update: since Saban became Bama coach starting with the ‘07 season, he’s competed against 39 coaches in conference play. Of the 39, 27 have been fired and one resigned in the middle of a season. With the firings of Malzhan and Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin (formerly of Texas A&M), there are only six active FBS head coaches with wins over Saban. 

Happy Birthday To You: Blues forward Ivan Barbashev is 25 today … Frank St. Marseille, an original Blue in 1967-68, is 81. He scored 44 goals in three seasons for The Note … former Mizzou running back Jon Staggers is 72. Staggers starred for the Tigers from 1967-69 before playing wide receiver in the NFL for six seasons … retired pitcher Ken Hill is 55; in two different stints with the Cardinals, Hill went 29-39 with a 4.23 ERA. 

ABOUT MISSOURI FOOTBALL:

 I was disappointed by the 49-14 whupping that Georgia put on Missouri at Faurot Field. I thought it would be a competitive game. I thought, if anything, Mizzou would cover the spread as a 14-point underdog. After the beatdown, the obvious and predictable narrative took form: the loss proved that Missouri still has a long way to go to close the talent gap and truly compete with the big boys. Well, yeah. We already knew that by watching the blowout losses to Alabama and Florida. And a team that loses 35-12 at Tennessee isn’t knocking on the door of the elite club in college football. This isn’t meant to disparage the work of first-year HC Eli Drinkwitz. He was the right hire. He’s energized the program. His style of play is entertaining. He clearly knows how to teach players. And his recruiting approach is spirited and charismatic. 

Here’s how I look at it: Yes, Mizzou does have a long way to go to match up with Georgia, Florida and a few others in the SEC. But until Coach Drink really gets his program rolling, there’s no reason why MU can’t take down the likes of Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina on a regular basis. But in the quest to close that gap, Drinkwitz will be pushing against history. Since Missouri joined the SEC in 2012, the Tigers have a terrible record against ranked opponents and FBS teams with winning records. 

Except for Coach Gary Pinkel’s exciting run to SEC East titles in 2013 and 2014, Mizzou is 1-23 vs. ranked opponents and 8-38 against FBS winning teams. (In 2013 and ‘14, Pinkel went 3-4 against ranked teams and 15-4 vs. winning FBS squads. Pinkel revived the flattened MU football program and is secure in his place as one of the greatest coaches in Missouri history. But Pinkel knew how hard it was to establish and sustain success in the SEC. I want to believe that Coach Drink can get it done. But for now, I’ll put it this way: this coach gives Mizzou its best chance to get it done. So now we wait and see how Drinkwitz builds on his promising first season. 

Meanwhile, a win Saturday at Mississippi State is certainly doable. So get the win at Starkville. That’s a fine way to make a statement on how this coach and this team can respond to a thumping. And a 6-4 SEC record has more twinkle than a 5-5 finish. 

AS OTHERS SEE US: 

At The Athletic, Joe Posnanski is counting down the best 100 players not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Poz has the late Ken Boyer — the beloved Cardinals third baseman — at No. 37.

 “Ken Boyer had the great misfortune of coming on the ballot in the 1970s,” Posnanski wrote. “That was a bad time to come on because the Hall of Fame voters in those days were ruthless. Yogi Berra came on the ballot in 1971 — arguably the greatest catcher and greatest winner in baseball history — and he fell short of election. Whitey Ford and Robin Roberts came on the ballot in 1973, and neither one was elected (Ford got in the next year, Roberts had to wait until his fourth ballot). Year after year, they refused to vote in Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Pee Wee Reese, etc. Anyway, when Boyer came on the ballot in 1975, he seemed to have some pretty impressive Hall of Fame credentials. He had won an MVP award, he was a five-time Gold Glove winner, he was a powerful run producer when offense was down, he was a widely respected and admired player. He got nine votes. Nine votes? How was that possible?

“Well, here’s how it was possible: Ken Boyer wasn’t the best third baseman on the ballot. No, the best third baseman on the ballot was Eddie Mathews … this is because Mathews was, at that moment, the best third baseman in baseball history. But the voters kept refusing to vote Mathews into the Hall of Fame. He came on the ballot one year before Boyer and got just 32 percent of the vote. It took him five ballots to get into the Hall.

“And with Mathews floundering on the ballot, what chance did Boyer have? None. He got nine votes, 15 votes, 14 votes and finally (the year Mathews was finally elected), 18 votes. He was dumped off the ballot after the next year. He got back on the ballot a few years later and did somewhat better as voters stopped being so intractable. But he never came close to election.

“He pops up now and again on veterans’ ballots, and there’s no question that Boyer, like a handful of other third basemen, has a good Hall of Fame case. I mean, he fielded like a shortstop and hit like a corner outfielder. I’m not sure anyone appreciates just how hard a combination that is to pull off.” 

Preach, Joe. 

Thanks for reading…

-Bernie

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.