It usually takes me a while to warm up to college basketball. Get me to conference play, get me to January, and I start to pay closer attention. But that’s changing this season. All because the locals are off to entertaining, exciting starts. Yeah, I know. It’s a long season. But St. Louis U, Mizzou and Illinois are worth watching. Three teams with abundant talent that are capable of providing an abundance of fun.
And we all could use some fun these days.
(Go the hell away, Covid-19)
Illinois had a fantastic victory at Duke on Tuesday night. Everybody knows that Ayo Dosunmu is a dynamic scorer, but he’s playing superb, all-around ball. Rebounding, court vision, smart passing for assists when double-teamed. Dosunmo had a beautiful 18-12-5 at Duke. But Illini fans know this is hardly a one-man band; this team has a whole lot more. Coach Brad Underwood’s Illini will be one of the leading contenders to emerge on top of a Big Ten conference that currently has six teams in the AP Top 25.
Missouri has one of the most experienced teams in the nation — 11th according to KenPom — and the optimism is percolating in CoMo. After two consecutive losing seasons, Coach Cuonzo Martin needs to establish success, and the program seems to have finally pivoted and moved forward after the from the bizarre Porter Family experience. Andy Katz of NCAA.com put MU guard Xaxier Pinson on his “10 Rising Stars” list.
When we think of St. Louis U, the smiles usually appear when Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French start making things happen … and goodness, do they make things happen. But another “Rising Star” on the Katz list is Javante Perkins, the 6-6 SLU forward that has the 15th-best Offensive Rating in the nation in the esteemed KenPom metrics. Coach Travis Ford — 50-21 since his first season at Chaifetz, a rebuild — has a deep and versatile team.
I always prefer to cite the KenPom national ratings instead of the traditional polls. As of this morning, KenPom has Illinois at No. 14, SLU at No. 38, and Mizzou at No. 40. This is notable because only one of the three (Illinois, at 30) finished in the KenPom top 40 last season. Two seasons ago, none did better than No. 68 (Mizzou.) And three seasons ago, only one of the three, MU, could be located in the season-ending top 40.
And early this season, all three programs are positioned in KenPom’s top 40. And I don’t think that’s a fluke.
Can’t wait to watch Illinois play at Mizzou on Saturday. The Braggin’ Rights matchup has lacked sizzle in recent years. Not this time.
READING TIME 5 MINUTES
Happy birthdays: The great Cliff Hagan is 89 today. The Basketball Hall of Famer starred for 10 seasons with the NBA St. Louis Hawks and teamed with the great Bob Pettit to win the 1958 NBA championship … former St. Louis football Cardinals defensive end Al “Bubba” Baker is 64. He had 37.5 sacks in four seasons (1983-86) with the Big Red … former St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Ray Agnew is 53 … former Rams defensive coordinator and interim head coach Jim Haslett is 65. Haslett had a 2-10 record after taking over for the fired Scott Linehan in 2008 … former St. Louis Blues forward Peter Nedvd is 49.
AND SINCE WE’RE TALKING ABOUT DEC. 9 …
It just so happens to be a particularly notable day in history for STL sports. This is the anniversary of:
+ 1965: The legendary Branch Rickey died of heart failure at age 83 after collapsing during a speaking engagement in Columbia, Mo. During two innovative and successful stints as a Cardinals’ executive, Rickey developed and implemented the first minor-league farm system in MLB history and built a Cardinals’ roster that won the 1942 World Series championship — the first of three World Series titles (and four NL pennants) over a five-year run. Rickey also came up with the classic “Birds on the Bats” uniform design. ESPN named Rickey the most influential sports figure of the twentieth century in honor of his decision to break baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
+ In 1973, popular Cardinals kicker Jim Bakken kicked six field goals in his team’s 32-10 win over the Falcons. But that wasn’t the NFL record at the time; Bakken owned the mark by making seven field goals in a victory over the Steelers in 1967. Bakken later served as athletics director at St. Louis U.
+ On this day in 1980, the Cardinals acquired reliever Bruce Sutter, the 1979 National League Cy Young Award winner, in a trade for third baseman Ken Reitz and OF-1B Leon Durham. Helluva trade by Whitey Herzog; Sutter was a huge factor in the Cards’ 1982 World Series championship season and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Cardinals Hall of Fame.
+ In 2013 the Veterans Committee unanimously elected three managers to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. (Given their strong presence in St. Louis, La Russa and Torre need no introduction and are members of the Cardinals Hall of Fame.) LaRussa, Cox and Torre rank 3rd, 4th and 5th on the all-time list for most manager wins, behind Connie Mack and John McGraw.
+ And on this day in 2016 the Cardinals signed free agent outfielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year deal worth $82.5 million. Fowler has one season remaining on a contract that’s averaged $16.5 million annually.
OK, LET’S REVIEW DEXTER FOWLER …
Let’s stay on Fowler for a few moments. Though he’s delivered good offense during a few random stretches, Fowler has disappointed overall in his first four seasons with the Cardinals. In 389 games he’s batted .233 with a .334 onbase percentage and .408 slugging pct. Fowler’s offense as a Card rates two percent below the league average. In two seasons (2015-16) with the Cubs, Fowler had a .367 OBP and .427 SLG and was 15 percent above league average offensively. And after stealing 33 bases in two seasons with Chicago, Fowler has only 34 steals in four STL seasons.
Moreover, Fowler is a poor minus 23 in Defensive Runs Saved since joining the Cardinals. Injuries have limited him to appearing in only 71 percent of the Cardinals’ games. And over the past four seasons — among MLB outfielders that have at least 1,500 plate appearances over that time — Fowler’s 3.0 WAR ranks 86th on a list of 111. Fowler turns 35 in March. Can he finish the contract with a strong 2021? That’s the hope. Because you know the Cardinals will keep playing him.
PICKING THE (DREW) LOCK …
In his second season with the Denver Broncos former Missouri quarterback Drew Lock is searching for consistency through 14 career NFL starts. I like Lock. He’s still in the developmental stage. And I’m not trying to be negative here … but the stats are the stats. And they’re really bad.
This season, among the 29 quarterbacks that have taken at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, Pro Football Focus rates Lock 28th in overall passing grade, 29th in adjusted completion percentage, 29th in deep passing, and 29th when passing under pressure.
According to Stats, Inc. Lock has completed only 9 of 49 passes (18.4%) this season on throws that travel at least 21 yards in the air — with no touchdowns and four interceptions. Lock’s QB rating on those deeper throws (21.9) is the worst in the NFL. No other NFL quarterback has a passer rating worse than 52.9 on those throws. Lock has struggled on third down; his 64.0 rating ranks 24th among 25 quarterbacks that have a minimum of 75 third-down attempts. Lock’s 13 interceptions this season are exceeded only by Carson Wentz (15 picks.) And the Eagles just benched Wentz in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts.
Since the start of the 2019 season — among quarterbacks with at least 300 overall passing attempts — Lock has the worst completion percentage (58.4%), worst passer rating (74.9) and second-poorest interception percentage. Lock, 24, has thrown 16 TD passes and 16 interceptions in his 14 career NFL games.
“I try to see things) better and better each week,” Lock told reporters after Sunday night’s loss to the Chiefs in his hometown Kansas City. “Feeling the game, dealing with what these defenses are doing and how they’re trying to stop us — definitely further along and feel better than I did a year ago.”
Denver selected Lock in the second round of the 2019 draft; he went 42nd overall. Maybe he just needs more work, more fundamental polish, more time. But the Broncos tend to be impatient with quarterbacks. And Lock has thrown at least one interception in seven straight games, the longest current streak in the league.
Thanks for reading …