KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 10: Jacob Pullen #0 of the Kansas State Wildcats looks to move the ball against the Colorado Buffaloes during their quarterfinal game in the 2011 Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament at Sprint Center on March 10, 2011 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Now that K-State has finished the three-part task of helping Colorado print out its NCAA tournament ticket, it's time to take a look at where these Wildcats will end up.
Three years ago, I was in a state of utter bliss as I watched K-State's name appear on the bracket as an 11 seed shortly after 11 p.m. local time at an American bar in Paris, where I was studying for a semester. Last year, I can scarcely remember watching the show alone in my apartment, since it was basically a foregone conclusion that K-State would get a #2 seed and I had properly celebrated at the Sprint Center in the preceding days.
I expect this season to fall somewhere in the middle for me as I watch at a friend's place, ideally after another great installment of Duke-UNC. Frank and Jake are certainly in the tournament for the third time in four seasons (as someone who isn't old enough to remember the glory days of K-State basketball, it feels great to type that) but look destined to fall somewhere in the middle of the at-large pack.
Unlike last year, there is a fair amount of tension and drama, and not just because Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith are joining the Selection Show team this year. I see K-State as capable of being seeded anywhere from a 5 seed (highly unlikely) to an 8 seed (even more unlikely), depending on the results of the next couple days and how the committee views a somewhat puzzling resume.
On the one hand, K-State clearly showed drastic improvements in the month of February, and two wins over Top 10 teams (one on the road) demonstrated this team is capable of beating just about anyone. The big question, then, is how much weight to give K-State's best month as compared to its worst month, when the Wildcats went 2-5 in conference play in January.
It would certainly be silly to not be a little lenient in judging K-State's 3-6 record against the RPI top 50, since those three wins came in their last three tries. Then again, it would be equally silly to call that ugly December loss to Florida a "good loss" just because the Gators later emerged as a dominant team in SEC play. The team K-State saw in Miami lacked cohesion and didn't deserve to be ranked, as evidenced by its loss to Jacksonville two days later.
Some other questions facing the committee in terms of the Wildcats: How much credit should K-State get for beating a reeling Texas team and a Missouri team that couldn't beat anyone on the road? Did OSU truly elevate their play enough at home to make that a reasonable loss? Does a renewed Jacob Pullen and more effective offense in general warrant a change for KSU's seeding? What the hell do those three losses to Colorado tell us about this team?*
I don't have any clear answers for these questions, except that tall, athletic guards with good three-point shooters ready to capitalize if you overplay the stars mean problems for Kansas State. But I imagine the Wildcats will fit in well with a large group of middling, inconsistent tourney locks, and I would hope that KSU will benefit from having no worse losses than Oklahoma State in Stillwater. The fact that the national narrative has the Wildcats as a dangerous team with a good coach and one of the toughest seniors in the country leading the way certainly won't hurt, even if not all those things are completely true.
*I don't know about the rest of you, but it makes me absolutely sick that K-State football/basketball went
1-6 2-5 against the two Big 12 teams that are leaving after this year. That was not supposed to happen, and frankly, it's kind of embarrassing.
At least the women's team took care of business by going 4-0 against the Huskers and Buffs. In fact, while we're here, let me say good luck to Deb Patterson's squad (that Selection Show is at 6 p.m. Monday), who should probably expect a 7 or 8 with a 21-10 record out of the relatively weak Big 12 North.
With K-State generally thought of as a five or six seed heading into the Big 12 tournament, it's important to take a look at the other teams in that general vicinity. Fortunately, West Virginia, Georgetown, and Cincinnati all crashed and burned in epic fashion in New York, and UCLA did the same out West. Temple, UNLV and Vanderbilt could still pull off upsets to put them definitively ahead of the Wildcats, but so far it's looking good.
Speaking of Vanderbilt, I'm not really seeing why they're even at the same level as K-State right now, even though the two teams finished the regular season with identical records. Sure, they've got some nice nonconference wins — UNC before it was good on a neutral floor, an underrated Belmont team, Marquette and St. Mary's, all at home —but seven losses in this year's SEC including an 11-point home loss to Arkansas? The only conference win of note is Kentucky in Nashville, and John Calipari's Wildcats were the Missouri of the SEC before they won at Tennessee in the regular season finale.
In the end, I'd expect K-State to wind up with a 6 seed, meaning the best-case scenario would be getting in a region with San Diego St. or BYU as the 3. It's just too bad the committee's rules prevent K-State from being matched up with Texas in the second or third round.
The worst-case scenario would probably pit K-State against Duke or North Carolina in game two. The backcourt duos of Harrison Barnes/Kendall Marshall and Kyle Singler/Nolan Smith would probably present some serious matchup problems, although I'm still holding out hope that a weak ACC made both those teams look better than they really are. Syracuse also scares me a little, just because I don't like the thought of K-State's offense having to learn how to play against a good zone defense.
As for tough first-round matchups, I'll leave that to the pessimists in the comments. None of those teams really jump off the page, other than perhaps a severely slumping Villanova team that was once really good according to people who love the Big East. One thought: It might be some sort of poetic justice to have K-State play Michigan St. in the Underachiever Classic, although as a general principle I want no part of Tom Izzo in the NCAAs.
Whatever happens Sunday and beyond, we should all be happy that K-State got it together in time to comfortably make the tourney. But now that they're there, they might as well win a couple games. If they don't, it will be more than reasonable to feel angry and disappointed, which still feels kind of weird to say. Success breeds higher expectations.