Here we are, ladies and gentlemen, at the beginning of the end. Twenty-four games into the season, Kansas State sits at 16-8 (6-5)*. They're firmly on the NCAA bubble, but the good news is that the last five conference games appear to be easier than the first eleven. However, with three home games (one a non-conference game against North Carolina Central) and three road games, the Cats have painted themselves into a corner, and if they hope to make the NCAA Tournament, every game from here on out is a must win.
Now, let me preface this by saying that if this team doesn't qualify for the NCAA Tournament, I'm not going to be upset. I'm going to be upfront in saying that the job Coach Martin, his staff, and the players have done thus far is worthy of all of our praise...
However, as much as we love this team, their resume, on paper, is not a great one. Per RealTimeRPI.com, KSU is currently ranked 76th, and the good win/bad win tally is sitting at 4-2. Not bad, but when you consider that, per the RPI, KSU only has four 'good'** wins all season, it's pretty poor considering those results put them on par with teams like Texas A&M and Michigan (two teams with little to no chance of making the tournament due to conference records). To put forth another comparison, Penn St. (#70 RPI) has five 'good' wins and no 'bad' losses. Most KSU fans would scoff at the thought of the Nittany Lions being a better NCAA Tournament candidate, but on paper, they are. Their record (18-8, 7-6) is very similar to KSU's as well, and the Big Ten has a greater conference RPI than the Big 12.
While even more comparisons can be made, the bottom line is that KSU's poor non-conference performance is mostly to blame for their current predicament. Two close losses to Kentucky and Iowa in Las Vegas (by a combined four points) has come back to haunt them nearly two months later. Kentucky (#59 RPI) would have been a solid win on a neutral floor, and had KSU beaten them, they would have avoided a bad loss to Iowa (#102 RPI). In fact, had KSU beaten Kentucky and played West Virginia in the finals of the Vegas tournament, they would have either beaten or lost to a very solid WVU team (#13 RPI), and that would have been much, much better than a loss to a weak Iowa squad. On top of that, the loss to Oregon (#160 RPI) a little over a week later looks absolutely horrible to the selection committee, and it's dragging down KSU's RPI like a lead balloon.
Let's put it this way; KSU's best win in the non-conference was at Cleveland State (#73 RPI). That's not how you build a resume...
However, weak resume and lost opporunties aside, the season can be salvaged. Let's take a look at the six remaining games, their respective RPI's, and KSU's chance of winning based on RealTimeRPI.com's scouting report:
Kansas State's Remaining Schedule
|2/17/2009||Home||North Carolina Central||1-22 (1-5)||340||95.2%|
|2/21/2009||Away||Iowa State||12-12 (2-8)||141||58.1%|
|3/3/2009||Away||Oklahoma State||15-9 (4-6)||38||34.3%|
As you can see, there are only three more chances to get 'good' wins, so the stretch between 2/25-3/3 is critical. For KSU to have ANY chance of making the tournament, they must beat Nebraska, and they need to steal at least one of two against MU or OSU. Also, they must win all of their remaning home games. That would give them a final conference record of 10-6, and they would have an outside chance at finishing in the top third of the conference depending on how Texas fares in the next few weeks. Based on their high RPI, a road win at Missouri would go a very, very long way in K-State's tournament hopes, so winning there is almost critical. A high profile win like that this late in the season would be big for the Cats.
Now, while most KSU fans seem to think that ten conference wins and a top four finish in the conference will be enough for KSU to make the tournament, it will not guarantee their entry into the tournament. The 2007 snubbing of Bob Huggins' only team at Kansas State is proof of that. That particular season, KSU had ten conference wins, top four finish, and a win in the second round of the Big 12 Tournament (Texas Tech). Many KSU fans thought that the Wildcats were a lock that season, but ultimately, that resume got them a #2 seed in the NIT. This year is shaping up to be eerily similar to 2007. A poor non-conference season, a couple of losses to KU, and ten wins against average Big 12 teams (including @ Texas) make these two seasons nearly mirror images of one another, and if KSU isn't careful, they could find themselves on the outside looking in for the second time in three years.
If KSU wins out, and they're able to finish in the top four and grab a win in the conference tournament, I think they can feel pretty comfortable on Selection Sunday. However, that's a pretty tall task, and the margin for error is almost non-existent. A loss to ISU, NU, or CU means they're out. Further, if they can't go into Stillwater and Columbia and manage a win between the two games, they're out. If they can't win at least one game in the conference tournament, they can probably start preparing for a home game in the first round of the NIT. When you think about it, the odds of them accomplishing all of these things (winning six out of the next seven games) is pretty remote to begin with, so this entire conversation is probably moot. But there is still a chance, and therefore, we need to talk about it.
Also, let's not forget that we're just talking about what KSU can do get into the Big Dance. That doesn't take outside factors into consideration either. If there are a lot of upsets in the mid-major and lower teir conference tournaments this year, it could be devistating to KSU's chances. If teams like Gonzaga or Utah State lose in their conference tournaments this year, it means that there will be one less bubble team in the dance because those mid-major players will definately get in, and the Cats' spot will go to a team like Boise St. or Nevada after they win their conference tournament. At this point, those scenarios are practically infinite, so it's not worth postulating what conferences may or may not have that risk. However, it's important to know that the usual upsets that are rampant this time of year will set off a chain of events that could keep KSU out of the tournament if they don't finish strong.
Ultimately, what it all boils down to is winning games. If KSU finishes out the season strong, they've got a shot. If they limp over the finish line, they're out. Simple right?
At this point, we should all heed the immortal words of Jake Taylor, "Well, I guess there's only one thing left to do...win the whole ****in' thing."
Right on, Jake. Right on.
Major League: There's only one thing left to do (via ipodkine)
* Emporia St., a Division II school, does not count towards the RPI.
** A 'good' win per the RPI is a victory (home/away/neutral) against a Top 100 team. A 'bad' loss is against a team with an RPI greater than 100.