BOTC Focus Group: Conference Basketball Eve

We are resurrecting the Focus Group just in time for Saturday's opening conference test in Columbia, Mo.  Answers, comments and criticism go in the comments.

1.  It's been a memorable non-conference season for K-State, the best in decades.  But they don't give out trophies for what you do in November and December.  Realistically assess K-State's chances of winning the Big 12, regular season and/or postseason.
 
2.  Conference play opens Saturday against Missouri.  Of all the teams in the Big 12 to start off with, and of all the venues to start out in, this strikes me as just about the worst.  Your thoughts on playing the Tigers at Mizzou Arena this weekend?
 
3.  Assess the rest of the Big 12.  Outside of KU and Texas, who is the biggest threat to K-State?  Who has been a disappointment?
 
4.  Bramlage is turning into a house of horrors for opponents this season, as the Cats hold a 9-0 record in the Octagon of Doom.  Home games against Texas and KU guarantee that our ability to maintain that unblemished record will be tested.  Can the Cats hold serve at home for what would be a 17-0 season in Manhattan?
 
5.  Especially for the old-timers, this season is bringing back memories of Sweet 16s, Elite 8s, and Final Fours past.  What is the ceiling for K-State this season?

EMAW:

1. While the opportunity to win the Big 12 could be better, given the strength of Texas and KU, this K-State team has the best chance as any Wildcat team since the conference was formed. The play of Jacob Pullen has given the Cats a 1-2 punch in the backcourt that will give teams fits all season. It's essential to have scorers on the outside if you want to keep up with the bigger programs. Add in the effective play of Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels and Dom Sutton, and K-State finally has an inside presence to hang with Cole Aldrich and Dexter Pitman. I think the Cats have a much better chance of winning the conference tournament than they do the regular season. Since we're being realistic, they'll probably drop one or two games against "lesser" teams that will hinder their chances of capturing the regular season crown. If they can get a top 4 seed in the tournament, earning them a bye, I can definitely see them making a run at the tourney title. This team has the depth and grit to win 3 games in 3 days.
 
2. Many Wildcat fans think Saturday is a sure win, while Mizzou fans think they'll blow us out. It's not an ideal start, but it does get our guys focused on the Big 12 season after closing out the non-con with some cupcakes. Frank will have the guys ready to play, although don't be surprised if they dig themselves a hole early on due to nerves and the sold-out arena. I feel much more confident knowing we have an experienced backcourt that will allow us to beat Mizzou's pressure. I feel the home winning streak will fall, though I won't be hugely disappointed if we come out with a loss.
 
3. While I feel a win at Mizzou is likely, them and A&M do pose the biggest threat to disrupt our chances of a top 4 finish. Both teams have proven they can win in the Big 12, and Mizzou is a well coached bunch. Oklahoma has been a large disappointment, but they are a team that may find their groove in conference play after looking horrid - I mean, HORRID - in their non-con. Maybe I was giving the Sooners too much credit before the season started, but I felt they would be in the mix for 3rd and 4th along with K-State and Mizzou.
 
4. While 17-0 at the OOD would be awesome, I just don't see it happening. Again, just being realistic, but with A&M, Texas, KU, and Mizzou slated to come to the Little Apple, I'll be pleasantly surprised if we come away unscathed. The fans are turning out in droves, and the place should be sold out for every conference game. But, it will take a monumental effort for the guys to get through the Big 12 without losing at home. However, running the table in Bramlage would probably mean the Cats are well on their way to a 16-0 conference record (29-1 overall).
 
5. Final Four. Yes, they can be that good. Get a good draw in the tourney, play strong defense, make some f-ing free throws, and we may all be taking a trip to Indy in early April.  I expect we make it to the second weekend of the tournament, which would still be a great acheivment for a program that was picking up the pieces of the Tom Asbury era roughly a decade ago.

TB:

1.  Better than ever, but still low.  If not for the fact that the schedule sets up nicely -- home games with Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State -- I would probably say the chances are almost zero.  It's a long, grinding season, and to win the league, slip-ups against teams like Nebraska, Texas Tech and Baylor simply are not permitted.  Maybe this team has grown to the point where it can handle roadies in Lincoln, Lubbock and Waco, but I'm going to have to see it to believe it.  Getting a win this weekend would be a big step.
 
2.  Terrible first matchup.  Mizzou looks to be down this year from last year, but if there's a team in the country that can make up for a lack of talent or experience with their style of play, the Tigers are that team.  Mizzou Arena will be packed and the home team hasn't lost there in more than a year.  A win Saturday will require a lot of poise and patience.
 
3.  It looks like Missouri may be that team running with us for a spot near the top.  Oklahoma State has lost to the two best teams it has played in Tulsa and Rhode Island.  Texas A&M has looked impressive at times, but the loss of Roland hurts them badly, and we get them at home.  Baylor has talent, but still seems to be the type of team that will only beat good teams when it has a hot shooting night.  Oklahoma has been an unmitigated disaster, easily the biggest disappointment.  So that leaves you with Missouri.  Iowa State and Texas Tech are much improved, but I'm skeptical that they're loaded for a run to the top four in this conference.
 
4.  No, and I say that with every hope in the world that I'll be wrong.  If we want to win the regular-season title, holding serve at home is an absolute must.  But when you see the likes of KU, Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in Manhattan, the odds are that you're losing one of those games.
 
5.  Elite Eight.  This team strikes me as a similar squad to Missouri last season, or Texas A&M in 2007.  Obviously, it depends on whether they keep this run going and then put together a stretch of good basketball over three games in the tournament, assuming good matchups, of course.  And while we have some very good wins to this point, we don't have any wins over truly elite teams.  We haven't played and beaten a KU, Texas, or Michigan State yet.  If we play one of those teams and win, especially on the road, then all bets are off.  Until then, I'm going with the end of the second weekend as this team's limit.

BracketCat:

1. Despite the presence of the No. 1 and 2 teams in the nation within our conference, we have an enormous opportunity because we host both in Bramlage this month. KU only has 33 percent of its games against Top 10 Big 12 teams at home, Texas has 50 percent and we have 67 percent. Do the math. All I know is that those are going to be four really, really good games.

Conservatively speaking, we should finish no worse than in third place. But we can do so much more, if everything goes just right.

2. I guess I don't see why everyone thinks this is such a poor matchup for us. I think we have all the pieces you need to beat Mizzou and end its colossal home winning streak:

a. A veteran backcourt that can handle pressure without coughing it up, and find opportunities for easy buckets against the press. BONUS POINTS: for having the fastest point guard in the country, who can split right up the court for easy layups at any time.

b. Tall trees in the middle to attack Missouri's biggest weakness: The post. BONUS POINTS: for having rebound-first bigs who constantly attack the basket and want to get fouled. I don't think Mizzou can take 40 minutes of that.

c. A team that likes to press and get after you just as much as Missouri does. As the game in Bramlage last season showed, the Tigers sometimes wilt when treated to a taste of their own medicine.

Can we lose? Sure, especially if we play like crap. But who have the Tigers beat? Oregon? Illinois? Georgia? Really, those are their best wins? This is a whole different kind of animal coming into Mizzou Arena on Saturday, and I'm not sure this current crop of Tigers is ready to deal with it.

3. Believe it or not, it's Baylor. I'm a convert after watching what the Bears did to Arkansas and South Carolina. The rest of the world hasn't yet cottoned to the fact that Scott Drew's crew actually is playing pretty good zone defense this season. Add in no less than five players who stand 6-foot-10 or better (three of them upperclassmen), the frontrunner for conference Newcomer of the Year and guards who can light you up at the drop of a hat, and that game in Waco scares me more than any other road game except the one in Lawrence. Baylor's biggest problem is that they play in the South, which means two games apiece against A&M, OSU, Tech and UT, but I bet they'll win the lion's share of those games.

For disappointments, everyone's saying OU, so I'll go with Iowa State. This was supposed to be McDermott's breakout year, but a three-game losing streak in the middle of the non-con, which included the Big 12's only home loss this season (and to a Missouri Valley team, no less!), seems to signal that these are the same ol' Cyclones. Barring a shocking upset tonight against Duke, I see no reason to fear that team, and Martin should remain undefeated against them.

4. I predict we go 12-4, and maybe 13-3 if everything goes our way. One of the following will happen:

a. Two home losses (probably KU and Texas) and two road losses (probably Baylor and KU)

b. One home loss (probably KU) and three road losses (the two mentioned above and one of either Missouri or Texas Tech)

c. Undefeated in the Octagon and 3-4 road losses (any or all of the above)

(Keep in mind that Frank never has lost more than two home games in one season. I don't think he ever will, either.)

A is the safe choice and the one most will predict for us. C is possible and probably leads to a regular-season title. My money's on B, and with the right tiebreakers and only two road losses in that scenario, it still will add up to a No. 1 seed.

5. I expect the Sweet 16 and have since we landed Curtis Kelly as a transfer. But the Elite Eight definitely is possible with the right draw. If Missouri could do it with their system, we absolutely can do it with our system and our talent.

Panjandrum:

1. I think KSU has an outside chance to win the conference during the regular season and an average chance to win it during the postseason.  While this has been a memorable non-conference season, a part of that has been due to the superior play of Jacob Pullen, and the other big factor has been the elevated play of Dom Sutton.  Now, will we see the same kind of production during the conference season from these two that we saw during the non-con, or will we see a regression?  If KSU can continue to get this kind of play from these two starters, and Clemente finds his stroke like he did during the conference season last year, they will be very, very tough to beat.  Especially if Wally Judge starts playing up to his physical potential.

I guess the moral of the story is that this team hasn't hit on all cylinders yet, and they're 13-1.  KSU can win this conference if it all comes together in the next couple of months.

2. Without a doubt, this is probably the toughest game that KSU could start off conference play with, and that's saying a lot because of how good KU and Texas are right now.  Missouri is a completely different team at home (exhibited by their ridiculous winning streak), and there aren't many venues that are as unfriendly to opposing teams as Mizzou Arena.  KSU can win this game, and if they do, it could be a portent of big things to come this season.

It's hard to say what KSU needs to do to win this weekend.  However, I think if Pullen and Clemente can consistently beat the press, KSU holds a strong advantage on the inside, so it would be a good idea to get the ball in the capable hands of Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels, Wally Judge, and the rest of the crew.

3. I think Missouri is a good team that has that homecourt advantage.  If they hold serve at home (for the most part...hopefully not against us), and they steal a few on the road, they'll finish in the upper half.  Oklahoma State is always a pretty good squad, and Oklahoma does have talent.  However, as of right now, it really looks like it's KU and Texas on one level, KSU slightly behind them, and then a whole lotta teams lumped together.

Except Colorado.  They really suck...as per usual.

4. KSU could definitely go undefeated at home.  The Bram will be sold out for the remainder of the year, and it looks like the fans have finally gone all-in with Frank and his program.  Like Missouri, KSU seems to really feed off of the energy at home, and it doesn't hurt that KSU has the best student section in the conference backing them up*.  The most difficult game of the home slate, Kansas, is going to be an ESPN College Gameday game, so you know the place will be coming unglued with energy.  Texas is a Big Monday game, so, again, you'll see a lot of energy there as well.  I think the home slate really lines up well for KSU, so it's a real possibility.

*     "Best student section" is a subjective term.  However, KSU has a unique combination of location and size that is somewhat rare in today's college basketball world.  Rarely will you see almost half of the arena filled with students wrapping from the freethrow line on one end of the arena to behind the back of the basket on the other side.  It creates a level of energy not seen in a lot of today's venues, especially ones that were never built to specifically confine students to one area.

5. I think the expectation, right now, is a Sweet 16 appearance.  If KSU can beat Mizzou on the road, and they beat KU and Texas at home, then maaaaayyyyyyybbbeeee we start talking about Elite 8's and Final Fours, but right now, this is a team that get to the second weekend.  One of the oldest adages in college basketball is that guard play is what wins games in March, and there aren't many teams that have a better backcourt than the Cats.  So, if they play like they have in the past month, KSU can definitely make some noise.  If Pullen continues to play at this level, and Clemente gets hot, well, the sky is the limit.

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