Tournament Thursday: Built to win in March?

Sorry Bruce, your team still needs to win a big road game to really move up in the rankings and off the bubble. - Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas State continues to follow the straight path to an NCAA tournament bid with a potentially tricky road game awaiting this weekend in Morgantown.

There was an interesting discussion yesterday with Curtis' post about in which our esteemed commentariat praised the Wildcats' defense at length, suggesting there are few teams K-State couldn't guard, stop or whatever. It wasn't necessarily specified what this could mean, but the clear implication was that a team this good defensively would be capable of beating all but the very best teams in March.

I thought about it, and I'm not so sure I agree. Obviously, at a certain point, you need to be very good offensively and defensively to win in the NCAA tournament. But (and maybe this is personal bias speaking because I like scoring better) I'd argue that in terms of pulling off a big upset or two, it's better to have an offense capable of getting hot than a shutdown defense.

If you've got players who can at any time start knocking down a bunch of 3s, it's not really going to matter as much what the opposing defense does. On the other hand, if you're relying heavily on your defense but your offense can't pull away, it's conceivable your opponent could still hit some tough shots and get the win.

It's a very thin line either way, and maybe there's no advantage at all when it comes down to a dynamite offense vs. a dominant defense, but I think of Wichita State's most stunning upset in the tourney last season, over #1 Gonzaga. The Shockers were known for their defense and it was pretty good that day (Gonzaga shot 36%) but they don't win that game without shooting 50% from the floor and making a crazy 14-of-28 3-pointers.

K-State's great defense the last couple years has made upsets against the 'Cats quite rare (this group wasn't playing at nearly the same level of intensity in November) but they haven't beaten a ranked team further away from home than Wichita or Kansas City. That generally takes a highly functioning offense or at least a special player or two, and this team just isn't quite there yet.

Hopefully I'm wrong, and I'm sure some will disagree. Perhaps even somebody will find statistics to prove defense does do better in pulling upsets, but I have neither the time nor inclination to go very far beyond anecdotal evidence at this point. For now, let's look at the abbreviated RPI Watch.

Northern Colorado: 13-4 (7-1 Big Sky, 1st) ESPN RPI 148
Oral Roberts: 10-10 (4-3 Southland, T-6th) ESPN RPI 177
Long Beach State (twice): 7-12 (3-2 Big West, T-3rd) ESPN RPI 147
Charlotte: 12-7 (3-3 C-USA, T-2nd) ESPN RPI 122
Georgetown: 11-9 (3-6 Big East, 7th) ESPN RPI 70
Central Arkansas: 4-14 (1-6 Southland, T-11th) ESPN RPI 344
Ole Miss: 14-6 (5-2 SEC, T-2nd) ESPN RPI 55
South Dakota: 8-11 (3-2 Summit, T-3rd) ESPN RPI 208
Troy: 7-13 (2-6 Sun Belt, 9th) ESPN RPI 234
Gonzaga: 19-3 (9-1 WCC, 1st) ESPN RPI 30
Tulane: 11-10 (3-3 C-USA, T-8th) ESPN RPI 227
George Washington: 17-3 (5-1 A-10, T-2nd) ESPN RPI 24

It wasn't a great week, as (in some cases, formerly) RPI Top 150 opponents Oral Roberts, Charlotte and Georgetown all went 0-2, though at least the Hoyas stayed put at 70 by virtue of playing Creighton and Villanova. Oral Robers, Central Arkansas, South Dakota and Troy all lost a pair of games as well, though UCA hilariously moved up two spots after losing at home to Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin, which is what happens when you're in the bottom 10 in the country.

Current status: Good side of bubble

Not much changed here. K-State kept doing exactly what it's expected to do by winning at home and losing on the road against an excellent and hungry Iowa State team. The Cyclones beat didn't look terrible against Kansas in Ames and pushed them hard in Lawrence last night, so there's certainly no shame in losing at Hilton.

Joe Lunardi actually moved the 'Cats up a spot to an 8-seed facing off against Florida State with a chance to play Wichita State in the second round in St. Louis. That would be amazing. Michael Beller of SI put Kansas State as a 9 seed against UCLA with a chance to play Kansas in the second round, which is of course horrifying but also impossible.

Jerry Palm of CBS Sports has Kansas State as a 10 seed in Spokane against Virginia, with San Diego State as a 2 seed. That's a rather terrifying matchup that would probably be a case of first team to 50 wins.

The Bracket Project kept Kansas State as a 9 seed, which honestly feels about right to me. For the reasons stated above, I can't see the Wildcats beating any #1 seeds, so it would serve them well to win a road game or two and get more comfortably into the tourney.

Last week:

There were just a few moments where Kansas State looked like it might pull off the upset in Ames, mostly when Iowa State appeared to fall asleep. The reverse was true on Tuesday night, when it was K-State who seemed in control for all but a few scary minutes in the second half against Texas Tech.

That game proved again just how far K-State has come since Northern Colorado, and even South Dakota, by showing the Wildcats can still come away with a conference win at home despite not playing anywhere near their best. It bears repeating that K-State hit just three field goals in the final 12 minutes, but they also went 12-for-12 from the line down the stretch.

This week:

The 'Cats get a bye next week so we can all stay focused on Signing Day. That leaves us with only the game at West Virginia, where the Mountaineers have been somewhat dangerous this season.

Still, it's a favorable matchup for Kansas State and WVU hasn't gotten its big win yet, unless you want to count Baylor. I don't. This remains a game K-State should win if it wants to stay on track to be an NCAA tournament team.

Big 12 bubble competition

Say goodbye Baylor after two more home losses, though it would be foolish for K-State to overlook such an athletic, talented team later this season. I'm also moving the Sooners into 'lock' status after their impressive win against Oklahoma State, and Texas could get there with a win over KU in Austin on Saturday.

Kansas State (15-6, 5-3 RPI 38)

Quality wins: Gonzaga, George Washington, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State

Bad losses: Northern Colorado (167), Charlotte (110)

Road/neutral wins: 3.5 (Gonzaga in Wichita was more like a home game)

Texas (16-4, 5-2 RPI 26)

Quality wins: @ North Carolina, vs. Iowa State, vs. Kansas State

Bad losses: None

Road/neutral wins: 5

An incredibly weak ACC and some big nonconference wins has somehow helped UNC sneak back into the RPI top 50, giving Texas a bonus it doesn't really even need. The Longhorns have an interesting back half of the schedule, with OSU as the only big obstacle remaining at home and chances for big road wins at KSU, ISU, KU and OU.

I still say K-State wants to boost its RPI and get comfortably into the tourney before the dangerous final 5 games of @OU, @TTU, vs. ISU, @OSU and vs. BU. At least a loss to Baylor on Senior Night seems highly improbable now.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs:

Like Joel Jellison told us in the podcast earlier this week, Kansas State could probably go just 9-9 in conference play and still make the dance with a win in the Big 12 tournament. That gives the Wildcats plenty of margin for error, considering they have four non-KU home games and road trips to both West Virginia and Texas Tech remaining. 11-7 still seems well within reach.

Why the RPI sucks

You'll see me referencing the RPI a lot in these posts, but rest assured it's not because I'm a fan. Rather, it's because the outdated rankings system still plays a huge role on Selection Sunday, so each week I'm going to highlight an absurdity in the week's rankings. Feel free to make suggestions!

This week's example is No. 29 Toledo, a team ranked seven spots ahead of Kansas State despite not having any wins more impressive than a 75-61 thriller on the road at the RPI's 95th-best team, Akron. The Rockets are 17-2, which is great, until you realize they have exactly four wins against the RPI top 150.

I can't fault them for a loss to Kansas, but Toledo also lost 87-76 at Western Michigan (RPI 163). KenPom puts the Rockets at a much more realistic 66th overall and ranks Toledo 228th nationally in Adjusted Defense (they're 13th in offense).

This absurd ranking could actually become a serious problem if Toledo keeps cruising and then suffers an upset in the weak MAC tourney, making itself an interesting at-large case. If that happens, expect the mid-major apologists to come out in full force on the side of the Rockets and use the RPI as their #1 reason.
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