To say Kansas State backed into the NCAA tournament might be an understatement.
Sure, the Wildcats did some good things in yesterday’s near-upset of Iowa State, but it doesn’t change the fact it ended in K-State’s third straight loss. Plus, as Curtis outlined in his recap yesterday, the defense that is supposedly this team’s calling card just hasn’t been all that good as of late.
Intuitively, this seems like a bad sign going into the NCAA tournament, where we've been led to believe by announcers, columnists and experts that few things are more important than momentum. After all, in a single elimination tournament, it's just about getting the right matchups and being hot at the right time.
There's some truth to that, but I'm also a believer in the (largely statistically based) theories that things like "momentum" and "clutch play" are wildly overrated by the mainstream sports world. Sure, they exist, just not to the extent in which they're used to fit so neatly into nice little narratives.
It seemed only reasonable, then, to try to get an idea of the importance of momentum heading into the NCAAs. So I looked at the last 5 games for all Sweet 16 teams in the last 5 years to see what the numbers revealed.*
*The nature of conference tournaments will distort this data to a degree, since Sweet 16 teams are mostly either mid-majors who are well above the rest of their league or members of major conferences. That means after maybe 1 or 2 relatively easy games, they have to face elite competition and only a small number can actually enter the Big Dance on a win streak.
The 'Cats will enter the tournament having won just 2 of their last 5, which has been true of 8 (10%) of all Sweet 16 teams the last 5 years, and all five of those in the last three years have been 6 seeds or worse. The last 5 seed or better to make the Sweet 16 after losing 3 of 5? That would be Jacob Pullen, Denis Clemente and the 2009-10 Kansas State Wildcats.
No. 7 seed Florida in 2012 (reached the Elite Eight) and No. 12 seed Arizona in 2009 (fell to No. 1 seed Louisville in the Sweet 16) are the only teams to make it after losing 4 of 5 prior to the tourney. Just three teams have come into the tourney on two-game losing streaks before reaching the Sweet 16 and weirdly, two of them (LaSalle last year and Wisconsin in 2011) beat Kansas State to get there.
No team in the last five years entered the tournament on a three-game losing streak and made the Sweet 16, though it's probably safe to say few tourney teams had to face an opponent as good as Iowa State in the first round of the conference tournament. 22 Sweet 16 teams (27.5%) had won just 3 of their last 5, including half the schools that reached that round last season.
Perhaps the best evidence of momentum being overrated is that of the 18 teams with a 7 seed or worse, 10 were conference champs. But the two teams mentioned above had won just 1 of 5 and another 4 teams had won just 2 of their last 5, including last year's Wichita State team and the 2011 VCU team that made an improbable Final Four run.
They not only overcame their recent struggles, but also beat teams that had significantly outperformed them over the course of the season. This is what Kansas State will have to do, but more tangible concerns like the defense, leadership and mental fortitude of this young team are far more relevant than a three-game losing streak.
Here's the RPI watch for which I've included each team's movement from the previous week, with a + indicating the team's ranking got worse and a - indicating it improved. For example, Northern Colorado (+5) went from 217 to 222. Teams in italics have been eliminated from their conference tournaments and thus, the NCAA tournament.
Northern Colorado: 18-12 (11-9) Big Sky, T-5th) ESPN RPI 222 (+5)
Oral Roberts: 17-16 (10-8 Southland, T-6th) ESPN RPI 186 (+0)
Long Beach State (twice): 15-16 (10-6 Big West, 3rd) ESPN RPI 161 (+14)
Charlotte: 17-14 (7-9 C-USA, T-8th) ESPN RPI 147 (-7)
Georgetown: 17-14 (8-10 Big East, 6th) ESPN RPI 63 (+5)
Central Arkansas: 8-21 (5-13 Southland, 11th) ESPN RPI 327 (-8)
Ole Miss: 19-13 (9-9 SEC, T-6th) ESPN RPI 85 (-10)
South Dakota: 12-18 (6-8 Summit, 5th) ESPN RPI 258 (+9)
Troy: 11-10 (6-12 Sun Belt, 8th) ESPN RPI 279 (+8)
Gonzaga: 28-6 (15-3 WCC, 1st) ESPN RPI 19 (-7)
Tulane: 17-16 (8-8 C-USA, T7th) ESPN RPI 214 (-6)
George Washington: 23-7 (11-5 A-10, 3rd) ESPN RPI 29 (+4)
Gonzaga made sure it won't have to rely on just its inflated RPI by locking up another West Coast title, and George Washington likely locked up an NCAA bid by winning 3 straight to end the regular season, though beating UMass in Friday's A-10 quarterfinal would be advisable. Georgetown sealed its spot in the NIT by losing to lowly DePaul Thursday, and Charlotte's dreams of a miracle run died before they even began against Louisiana Tech in El Paso.
Long Beach State could take two more and win the Big West, while Northern Colorado needs two wins to earn the Big Sky's auto bid. Ole Miss might have a shot at an at-large with a run to the SEC title game, which means beating Georgia Friday and probably Kentucky on Saturday.
Kansas State is in and actually getting a lot of help from the other teams around the 8-9 loss, which is good news if you don't want the Wildcats to fall to a 10 seed. A lot can still happen in the next three days, but it would be rather stunning if the 'Cats finished any better than an 8 or worse than a 10.
This week's podcast guest, SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean has Kansas State as a 9 seed vs. Oregon in Orlando, which terrifies me because the Ducks lead the Pac-12 in scoring with 82.5 points per game. SI's Michael Beller has the same scenario in his bracket, and of course the No. 1 seed in that pod is Florida, who is going to lose and help Mizzou earn a bid today. Please?
Shelby Mast of USA Today also likes the 'Cats as an 9 seed vs. Oregon. On the plus side, it's in St. Louis, where Wichita State would likely be waiting in the second round.
Jerry Palm of CBS Sports has Kansas State as a 9 seed vs. Colorado, which doesn't sound so bad, but then it gets truly horrifying. Wisconsin has taken Villanova's place as a 1 seed in Palm's bracket and would likely be K-State's 'reward' for a win.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi has K-State as a 9 seed vs. Memphis in San Diego opposite 1 seed Arizona. This actually might be my favorite projected draw, since the Tigers are athletic but very inconsistent and U of A really hasn't blown me away with its ability compared to the other top seeds.
The Bracket Project has dropped Kansas State to its third 9 seed, one spot ahead of Arizona State and one behind Oklahoma State. Still ahead of the 'Cats is Iowa, who has lost 6 of its last 7 to fall to 20-12, which of course happens to be K-State's record as well.
The really painful loss came last Saturday, when Baylor ruined Kansas State's perfect Big 12 home record on Senior Day. Then the 'Cats actually put up quite a good fight despite failing down the stretch against Iowa State in Kansas City.
Neither of those losses will look bad on a resume, particularly since Baylor is arguably the hottest team in the Big 12. However, a win in KC would really have been nice to prove to the committee — and maybe the 'Cats themselves — that K-State can beat good teams away from home.
Teams to root against