It may seem a little premature or panicky to be talking bubble with a team that is 15-4 and ranked 18th in this week's USA Today/Coaches Poll. I certainly hope this seems ludicrous to even talk about in a week or two, but there are a few statistics and notes that scare me as we move towards February.
First off, even though I hate the RPI with a fiery passion, we can't overlook the fact that K-State's ESPN RPI is rather low at 35th. The reason for that is not only a bunch of uber-cupcakes at home in the nonconference, but the lack of a true road win better than West Virginia, a team ranked 95th in today's RPI rankings and probably the second-worst team in the conference.
Of course, the optimist in me points out that's largely due to a lack of opportunities, and those are certainly on the way with road games against good-but-not-great teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor, not to mention games at struggling teams like Texas and Texas Tech. It's also a bit of a concern that KSU is in a three-way tie for third in a conference that could be lucky to even have four teams go dancing this season, but that also could easily be a product of this early schedule.
While we're used to seeing Frank Martin teams hit their stride and play their best basketball in February, Illinois fans would likely tell you that's not at all how Bruce Weber teams have fared. Sure, some of these Illini teams were just bad all season, but it's not exactly reassuring that they went 19-28 in regular season games played in February and March over the past five years. That includes last year's 1-8 collapse and only one winning record, when Illinois was 6-4 in 2009.
Current status: Solidly In
The win over Florida seemed huge at the time, and its value has only gone up in the past month and a half. That might have something to do with the fact that the Gators have won every game since then by at least 15 points, leading some to suggest they are the best team in country.
I'll believe that when I see them beat SEC power......oh, right, there are no other great teams in the SEC (though Missouri should present a stiff challenge in Columbia Feb. 19 if Laurence Bowers is back and clicking with that offense). Nonetheless, we should all be extremely grateful Florida's threes weren't falling at the Sprint Center, because without that win, K-State's resume would be merely beating the teams it should and little else.
As it is, Joe Lunardi has Kansas State as a 7-seed matched up against 10-seed Kentucky (let me repeat: 10-seed Kentucky. LOL) in Salt Lake City. At this point, I am contractually obligated to remind you what happened the last time Kansas State was in Salt Lake City: "He's in shape!"
Andy Glockner of SI has KSU as a 6 seed in KC against Villanova, which I like a lot better. In fact, Glockner's whole bracket gives KSU about as easy a path to the Final Four as it could possibly hope for right now, with #3 seed Butler (not scared), #2 seed Indiana (Cody Zeller is the most overrated player in America) and #1 seed Duke (One word: Miami), but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The Bracket Project, which is a compilation of 60 brackets across the web, puts K-State as a 6 seed in its Bracket Matrix, with seeds ranging anywhere from 3 (you're too kind, Bracket Dance and D-World Society) to 10 (someone's relying too much on RPI). In this week's example of how stupid the RPI is, consider that Illinois (15-6, losers of 6 of 9 after starting 12-0) is ranked 32nd, three spots ahead of Kansas State. I get that the Big Ten is tougher than the Big 12 and wins vs. Butler (neutral) and Gonzaga (road) are impressive, but come on, that's ridiculous.
Sure, last week could have gone better. If K-State had made just a couple more threes against Kansas, there's a good chance I wouldn't even be writing this. Still, no one has beaten the Jayhawks or won in Ames since Nov. 13, so this two-game losing streak is really no great cause for concern.
In fact, I think we saw a big positive Saturday when the 'Cats nearly won despite Angel Rodriguez being on the bench with foul trouble for more than half the game. I agree for the most part with those who say Will Spradling isn't very useful when he's not shooting well, but he obviously had it going against Iowa State and showed some additional value with just 2 turnovers in 37 minutes.
This feels like one of those weeks where Kansas State will either prove it is what it seems to be — a solid tourney team that takes care of business and can beat a great team if that team is having a bad game — or the wheels will start to fall off. Texas at home and a road game at Oklahoma are both very winnable, but they've also got me a lot more worried than, say, road games at pitiful TCU and West Virginia.
Texas appears to be a team with a lot of talent but no chemistry (maybe this has something to do with Rick Barnes) which makes them capable of accidentally putting it together for one game and pulling off an upset. This is, after all, a team that had halftime leads against both Michigan State and Kansas and took Baylor to overtime in Waco.
I'm still not really sure what to make of Oklahoma and unless things have changed, the crowd at the Lloyd Noble Center shouldn't really provide much adversity for K-State, who you'd like to think would do well on the road with all of its experience anyway. However, as long as Lon Kruger is on the Sooners bench, this game will remain anything but a given.
Big 12 bubble competition
I honestly can't remember another year when the Big 12 was this bad, and while I like the optimism I've seen from some of you, it's incredibly difficult for me to imagine a scenario in which Kansas doesn't win the conference. Sure, they've looked somewhat beatable lately, but I don't see these Jayhawks losing more than two games, and neither K-State nor anyone else is going to touch that.
Just have a look at the resumes of the Big 12's other NCAA tournament contenders, ranked in order of their tourney chances as of now. Quality wins are wins against anyone in the RPI Top 50, bad losses are RPI 100+ and head-to-head is against the other Big 12 contenders.
Kansas State (15-4, 4-2, RPI #35)
Quality wins: vs. Florida in KC (RPI #7), vs. OU (25), vs. OSU (41)
Bad losses: None
Strength of Schedule: 57
Road/neutral wins: 4
Head-to-head record: 2-1
Iowa State (14-5, 4-2, RPI #39)
Quality wins: vs. BYU (48), vs. KSU (35)
Bad losses: @ TTU (189)
Strength of Schedule: 80
Road/neutral wins: 2
Head-to-head record: 1-0
Baylor (14-5, 5-1, RPI #34)
Quality wins: vs. St. John's in Charleston, SC (47), vs. BYU (48), vs. OSU (41)
Bad losses: vs. Charleston (154)
Strength of Schedule: 29
Road/neutral wins: 5
Head-to-head record: 1-0
Oklahoma (13-5, 4-2, RPI #25)
Quality wins: vs. OSU (41)
Bad losses: None
Strength of Schedule: 13
Road/neutral wins: 6
Head-to-head record: 1-1
Oklahoma State (13-5, 3-3, RPI #41)
Quality wins: vs. North Carolina State in Puerto Rico (15)
Bad losses: @ Virginia Tech (131)
Strength of Schedule: 70
Road/neutral wins: 3
Head-to-head record: 0-3
Texas (9-10, 1-5, RPI #140)
JUST KIDDING! Rick Barnes is definitely going to prevent Texas from making the NCAA tourney for the first time in 15 years. Can you taste the Longhorn Tears?
At the moment, all of these teams are in the tourney according to ESPN and SI, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. I guess this is where it helps to have such a huge gap between the top 6 and the bottom 4. In fact, the top 6 are 18-1 against the bottom 4 so far, with the only exception being Tech's upset of Iowa State in Lubbock last week.
In case you didn't notice, after they beat Oklahoma State Saturday in Lawrence, the Jayhawks will have beaten all five Big 12 NCAA contenders. I'm telling you, barring major injury issues, knocking Kansas off its smug, entitled perch this season is a pipe dream. Cue Furnace's referee conspiracy theory in 3....2......1.....
There are also some (to me) surprising positives to take from these resumes. K-State's SOS is actually better than those of ISU and OU, and only two of the other four teams have more road/neutral wins than the 'Cats. Combine that with what we already knew, and in spite of the nonsensical RPI numbers, it really looks like Kansas State and then everyone else behind Kansas right now.
We can also learn from this that Okie State is in big trouble, though that's a bit deceiving since their 0-3 head-to-head record is made up of all road games. Their matchup tonight against Iowa State at Gallagher-Iba could have some huge implications for a league that figures to get only five, or maybe even just four bids this year.
What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs
This is pretty simple right now. Defend your homecourt and no stupid losses. The bottom of the league is beyond awful this year, so one loss to a Texas Tech, TCU or West Virginia could do some serious damage to a resume. Don't let it happen, Bruce.