The 3 best things that happened over the weekend in STL-related sports:
1–The Big 10 Conference tournament championship and a No. 1 seed for the Fighting Illini. The 91-88 overtime win over Ohio State reaffirmed why Illinois is highly capable of winning the NCAA championship. The best player, guard Ayo Dosunmo, had an off-form game, at least by his standards — making 5 of 17 from the floor with five turnovers. Big man Kofi Cockburn, restrained by foul trouble, was limited to 28 minutes and missed 7 of 13 free throws. The Illini relinquished a sizable lead and trailed late in the second half, late in OT. But sixth man Andre Curbelo and bench players D’Amonte Williams and Giorgi Bezhanishvili combined for 41 of the Illini’s 91 points, with 15 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals and only 3 turnovers. Illinois never lost its composure, making plays at the end and cranking up the defense as Ohio State buckled and fell. And the Illlini didn’t beat a palooka here; the Buckeyes are a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tourney.
2–Missouri officially made the tournament for the second time in coach Cuonzo Martin’s four seasons. And that’s a positive step for a program that had gone 17-55 in the SEC — with no NCAA Tournament appearances — in the four seasons before Martin’s arrival. The Tigers go in as a No. 9 seed and will face a hazardous first-round matchup with Oklahoma. Both teams struggled late in the season. The winner almost certainly will enter a second-round matchup against the undefeated and tournament-favorite Gonzaga. And that’s exactly what you want for Mizzou: another chance to slingshot a superior team … in this instance perhaps the very best team.
Getting past Oklahoma will be a challenge. Sooners coach Lon Kruger has won 21 NCAA tourney games during his career, making two Final Fours. In 2013 Kruger became the only head coach to guide five different D-1 programs into the NCAA Tournament. (Tubby Smith later matched that achievement.) But Kruger is the only coach in D-1 history to win an NCAA tournament game with five programs. And he’s one of only four active coaches to take three different teams into the Elite Eight.
This season Mizzou has knocked off nine teams that made it into this year’s NCAA Tournament: Oral Roberts, Oregon, Wichita State, Liberty, Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida. Oklahoma has six wins over NCAA tournament teams: West Virginia (two), Alabama, Kansas, Texas and Oral Roberts.
KenPom’s projection has Oklahoma defeating Mizzou by one, 71-70.
3–It was another strong-man weekend for Cardinals left fielder Tyler O’Neill. In 22 plate appearances through Sunday, Bro was batting .476 with a 1.357 OPS, two homers, two doubles, and eight RBI. His strikeout rate (22.7%) is acceptable by today’s MLB standards. He continues to hit the ball to all fields — a sure sign that he’s figuring this thing out. (Update: O’Neill had two more hits Monday and is batting .500 in the Grapefruit circuit.) Yeah. It’s only spring training … it’s only spring training … It’s only spring training. But here’s a question: would you rather see O’Neill batting .119 this spring with 10 strikeouts in 21 at-bats?
The three worst things that happened over the weekend in STL-area sports:
1–Saint Louis U. was denied an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Unless they’re called in as a Covid-contingency replacement for one of the teams in the NCAA bracket field, the Billikens are bound for the NIT. Look, I don’t want to be the typical homer here and whip up some convoluted case for SLU, then rage against the NCAA machine for excluding coach Travis Ford and the Billikens.
We’re aware of the plusses on SLU’s resume. But we’re also aware of SLU’s subpar showing on the road (1-4) including a 23-point loss at No. 79 Dayton that destroyed the momentum of a four-game winning streak. And the 18-point loss to St. Bonaventure in the A-10 tournament was a no-show and an embarrassment. SLU’s dull 3-3 record in the last six games wasn’t much of a closing argument.
But we’re also aware of this eternal truth: never trust the NCAA Selection Committee. And in this instance, the star-chamber selectors didn’t give much of a hoot — or any hoot at all — over the Billikens’ lengthy Covid delay that turned the season upside down. Power conference teams might get away with a 3-3 fizzle down the stretch; the committee doesn’t extend such courtesies to non-power candidates.
And since we’re telling tales of truth, there’s this one: The NCAA’s NET rating is garbage. Saint Louis is rated 43 in the NET but was left out of the tournament with at-large invitations going to Drake (No. 45), UCLA (46), Mizzou (47), Virginia Tech (48), Michigan State (70) and Wichita State (72.)
Works really great.
2–More anxiety over the Cardinals’ starting rotation. K.K. Kim has a stiff back. He joins Miles Mikolas (shoulder) in limbo. Next man up: Daniel Ponce de Leon, who joins previous next man up John Gant, who was the next man up for Mikolas. But this will be a bullpen-based pitching staff.
3–The Blues were overrun by Vegas in two games at Enterprise Center, but I already wrote about that in my first column of the day. So now I’ll go with something else:
3a–The reaction to Matt Carpenter. Look, I understand why he’ll be getting lots of at-bats from here on out. The Cardinals are determined to give Carpenter a full opportunity to succeed or sink. If he hits, then it sets up a potentially productive platoon arrangement with Tommy Edman at second base. If Matt doesn’t hit, only to be written into the lineup on a frequent basis, the Cardinals will face legitimate questions about their commitment to winning.
But we’re not there yet, my friends. No, Carpenter hasn’t done enough to warrant a platoon format with Edman. But spring training isn’t over, right? The point: If the Cardinals are playing this straight, then Carpenter should be given a thorough chance to succeed … or fail. And when we see the results at the end of the spring, we’ll have a better idea of what makes sense — and what is fair … or unfair. What is sane … or insane.
Let’s hit some fungoes around the NL Central camps:
- The Cubs are trying to finesse their concern over closer Craig Kimbrel. In his two seasons as a Cub, Kimbrel has a 6.00 ERA in 41 appearances, allowing 11 homers and a .529 slugging percentage in 36 innings. Plus, a 14.5% walk rate. And he’s been awful this spring …
- Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is entering his walk year but is “very optimistic” about reaching agreement on a contract extension with the team. “My goal is bringing the next championship here in Chicago,” Rizzo said. And it’s coming. It’s coming soon. It’s coming to this city. That’s my focus: How are we going to win again? We feel really good.”
- It looks like Travis Shaw has a good chance to win Milwaukee’s third-base job. His spring-training stats aren’t jumping off the screen, but team management sees plenty of life in Shaw’s bat. “It’s early but I’m happy he’s healthy and moving well,” Milwaukee GM David Stearns said. “He’s swinging the bat well. For all these players, getting through these first few weeks healthy and feeling good in their bodies is important. I think that’s where Travis is.”
- If Ponce de Leon wants to ease any Cardinal concerns about his capability as a starter, it begins with decreasing his walk rate. It’s 12.8% for his career and blew up to 14% last season. “Ponce” is talented and can pound hitters for strikeouts (26.8% for his career, 32% last season.) But unless the walks are reduced, Ponce de Leon won’t become a reliable starter. Late last season we saw just how good he can be: in his final three starts Ponce had a 2.65 ERA, lowered his walk rate to 8%, and struck out an amazing 37% of batters faced. And by decreasing that walk rate, Ponce gave the Cardinals 17 innings over the three starts. More of that, please.
- The Pirates are thrilled with 24-year-old third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, the 32nd overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft. Hayes made quite a small-sample impression late last season, batting .376 with a 1.124 OPS in 24 games. Through Sunday Hayes was batting .435 with a 1.306 OPS in Grapefruit League play … after trading Josh Bell to Washington, the Pirates could go with a platoon at first base, with LHB Colin Moran and non-roster invitee Todd Frazier. Moran is weak against LH pitching (.636 career OPS). And the RHB Frazier, 35, has an .815 career OPS vs. lefties … the Pirates made a nice pickup in signing swingman Trevor Cahill to a one-year deal for $1.5 million. Cahill can start or relieve; he had a 3.24 ERA in 25 innings for San Francisco last season.
- The Reds are pleased with infielder Jonathan India, their first-round pick in 2018. India, 24, was promoted to the MLB camp last week after getting positive reviews for his performance in Cactus League games. India had a .333 average and 1.111 OPS in 11 games through Sunday. He can play second base, third base, and worked at shortstop in the minors. The Reds apparently are giving some consideration to moving third baseman Eugenio Suarez into their void at shortstop. That would be surprising, but India could play third. Or he can take over at second base if the Reds move Mike Moustakas to third, his natural position. Manager David Bell made one thing clear: India won’t be in the majors early this season unless the Reds use him extensively. “I think when he gets to the big leagues, there’s going to be a commitment to playing him,” Bell said. “That will be the timing part of it that has to make sense for him. So he’s in a position where he can contribute in a couple of different spots. We will have to figure that out.”
- Red starting pitcher Sonny Gray is experiencing back pain and may not be ready to roll by opening day … remember lefty pitcher Brandon Finnegan, a wicked bullpen force who starred for the Royals during their World Series run in 2015? After being traded to the Reds, Finnegan hasn’t pitched since early 2018 because of a series of injuries, but he’s back throwing in the mid-90s and looks good in camp … The Reds’ infield is a bit of a puzzle; the issues include first baseman Joey Votto being placed on the Injured List after testing positive for Covid-19. “He seems to be doing well,” former teammate Jay Bruce told New York reporters. “Joey definitely holds a special place for me when it comes to a former teammate, a very, very close friend. We came up together, but in a lot of ways, I do look at him as a mentor and someone that I learned so much from. He is an incredible player and historic player in a lot of ways.”
Random Thoughts on the NCAA Tournament Selections:
— Midwest No. 1 seed Illinois won’t have an easy second-round game, facing the winner of the Loyola-Chicago vs. Georgia Tech first-rounder. And a word on Loyola: the committee absolutely gave the Ramblers a raw deal. A complete lack of respect. Loyola, 24-4, is ranked 9th in KenPom, 10th in NET — so how does that translate into a No. 8 seed? Georgia Tech has won 8 in a row; the 9 seed was a bit harsh.
— Gonzaga (West) has the easiest path to the Final Four. A second-round game vs. Mizzou or Oklahoma could be a pain in the neck for a while, but the Zags should get through it. They’ve already defeated the 2, 3 and 4 seeds— Iowa, Kansas, and Virginia—during the regular season. One other opinion on the West: Oregon is under-seeded at No. 7. They’ve played above that level since Will Richardson returned from injury.
—I’m happy for Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin, who retires on an appropriately successful note, with the Valley getting two teams into the Dance. Elgin’s work has been exemplary on all levels, but at the top of the list is his leadership in making the MVC into a consistent two-bid league.
–I already growled about Loyola-Chicago, but the committee also ‘dissed St. Bonaventure, planting them as a 9 seed. Let’s see: No. 23 in the NET, 25th at KenPom, and get set up in the East to encounter LSU’s loaded roster and then (presumably) No. 1 seed Michigan. Congrats, A-10 champs! Here’s your prize! We hate the non-power conferences! (But we put Drake and Wichita State in there just to throw everyone off and show that we care about the so-called mid-majors.)
—Syracuse as a No. 11 seed? And Jim Boeheim’s team gets to avoid the “first four” play-in game? Absolutely hysterical … and so predictable. What is the justification for this? Syracuse went 13-1 at home and didn’t do so well (2-7) on the road. They were a terrible 1-7 in Quad 1 games. But this committee exists, in part, to accommodate Boeheim.
—Sparty didn’t get the Boeheim treatment. I’m not saying Michigan State deserved the red-carpet treatment — they didn’t — but Tom Izzo’s team beat Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State down the stretch and still couldn’t avoid a play-in game vs. UCLA. didn’t get the Spartans out of a Thursday night date with UCLA.
— Oklahoma State as a No. 4 seed (Midwest) seems really off. The Cowboys went 20-8 against one of the third-toughest schedule in the nation and had an outstanding 10-6 record in Quad 1 games. (Nationally only Illinois, with 13, finished with more Q1 victories than Oklahoma State. But the Cowboys ended up with a 4 seed after losing to Texas in the Big 12 title game. Texas is an NCAA 3 seed, so there’s no shame in that. Meanwhile, Big 12 rival West Virginia gets in with a 3 seed despite losing two games to Oklahoma State this month. Get some payback, Cade Cunningham.
–My picks for The Final Four: Gonzaga, Alabama, Baylor, Illinois. And Illinois over Gonzaga in the title bout.
(Note from Bernie: Writing too fast, I mistakenly typed in Gonzaga over Illinois earlier today. My bad.)
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.