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Tournament Thursday: Yes, Kansas State has a chance

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It won't be easy and it still would be a little improbable, but the Wildcats have stormed back into contention for an NCAA bid heading into the meat of their Big 12 schedule.

Thomas Gipson and Kansas State are making a strong push to get into the tournament picture.
Thomas Gipson and Kansas State are making a strong push to get into the tournament picture.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

A mere two weeks ago, I didn't expect to be writing this. K-State had lost three in a row and fallen to 7-7, making any sort of postseason look just about impossible considering the Big 12 schedule. Then the Wildcats won four in a row and nearly pulled off an upset in Ames, so here we are.

To be sure, there's still plenty of work to be done and the toughest challenges are yet to come. It looks to be an uphill battle, but as long as Kansas State can reasonably be considered in contention for an NCAA bid, you'll see this feature on Thursdays.

Keep in mind Bruce Weber K-State teams have been at their best in February (12-4) and as long as these Wildcats bring their best effort on defense, virtually every game seems winnable.

As much as it pains me to say it, winning ugly again seems to be the only way for Kansas State against the quality opponents they'll see virtually every night in this conference. Making shots is the tricky part, and it sure would be nice to see some other guys step up to help Marcus Foster, Thomas Gipson and the somewhat surprising double-digit scorer, Nino Williams, on a more consistent basis.

Until that happens, though, we'll just have to deal with what we have, whether it's the inconsistent jump shots of Nigel Johnson and Justin Edwards, the on-again, off-again athletic prowess of Wesley Iwundu, or the deadly and terrifying penetrating abilities of Jevon Thomas. Basically, just find a way to get to 65 points and K-State will be in good shape in places other than Hilton Coliseum.

I'm not sure how often that can happen and if it becomes a regular occurrence Bruce Weber will deserve a ton of credit. Before you think too much about how awkward that might feel, though, let's take a look at the abbreviated RPI Watch, which features only nonconference opponents. Be sure to check out Bracket's full version every Monday.

Southern Utah: ESPN RPI 309
UMKC: ESPN RPI 320
Long Beach State: ESPN RPI 67
Purdue: ESPN RPI T-96
Arizona: ESPN RPI 8
Pittsburgh: ESPN RPI 66
Nebraska-Omaha: ESPN RPI 310
Tennessee: ESPN RPI 43
Bradley: ESPN RPI 258
Savannah State: ESPN RPI 311
Texas A&M: ESPN RPI 46
Texas Southern: ESPN RPI 121
Georgia: ESPN RPI 23

As you can see, 7-6 through that schedule is pretty much terrible, although at least Texas A&M, Tennessee and Georgia are a combined 10-5 in SEC play so far. Texas Southern is showing their 2-9 record was somewhat of a mirage with five wins in five SWAC games, although that's possibly the worst conference in the country.

Current Status: Out

Kansas State is actually in (the latest bracket of Joe Lunardi) and others by virtue of being in first place to start the week, though of course that dream didn't last through Tuesday. The Wildcats have certainly looked the part of a tournament team their last 5 games, but unfortunately the committee doesn't go exclusively by the eye test.

Lunardi has KSU in as a 12 seed, so there can be no delusion about whether they would be in as an at-large. SI's Michael Beller and CBS' Jerry Palm both have the 'Cats out of the field, though at least Beller put K-State "in the mix" in this week's "Bubble Watch."

The Bracket Project, which compiles several different brackets across the web, puts Kansas State in the "Next Four Out" or more specifically, the eighth team out. In total, nine brackets have the Wildcats in the field, all of them as an 11 or 12 seed.

Last week: K-State's best win of the year against Baylor capped off the four-game win streak and proved Bramlage Coliseum will still be a tough place to play this season. Incredibly, Bruce Weber is 19-2 in Big 12 play in that building the last three years, a better conference mark than anyone other than Kansas (20-1) and Iowa State (19-1).

Clearly, then, there's no shame in losing at Hilton Coliseum, though of course it stings to falter down the stretch like that. Then again, the Cyclones already have four Big 12 wins by six points or less, so clearly they know how to close out games.

It's worth noting the Wildcats did that with Foster far from his best on offense, considering he made just 6-of-16 shots on the night. Other than a few forced jump shots, though, K-State's star looks to be back focused and ready to play, which is a great sign going forward.

This week: Kansas State heads into two critical home games on thin ice, and it's possible the ‘Cats could fall through with a loss in either one. At the very least it would force them to beat a quality team on the road again later this season, something I think we'd all rather avoid.

On the bright side, Oklahoma State and West Virginia don't look nearly as tough as they did before a pair of blowout losses last Saturday. The Cowboys especially look a little lost after getting rocked 82-65 at Oklahoma and falling to 2-3 in Big 12 play and 1-4 on the road this season.

Not that this means a lot, but Kansas State was picked by coaches to finish well ahead of both of these opponents in the preseason poll. The talent and athleticism gap K-State faces against an Iowa State, Kansas, Texas or even Baylor doesn't appear to be there.

Nonetheless, both schools are a considerable step above TCU and Texas Tech, so winning with a poor effort likely won't be possible. Let's not forget O-State beat an admittedly very different-looking Kansas State squad in Stillwater this month, and WVU has the advantage of possibly the Big 12's best player, Juwan Staten.

Big 12 bubble competition: This section gets a bit tricky, since one could argue as many as nine teams have a shot at a bid, even if the shine of TCU's perfect nonconference record is fading fast. That makes it easy for teams to jump on and off the bubble every week thanks to constant opportunities for quality wins.

For now, I'm putting Iowa State, Kansas, Texas and Baylor into lock status, but that doesn't mean they're destined to stay there. It merely means they're good to go barring complete disaster, but meltdowns are conceivable for just about anyone in this year's Big 12.

As always, quality wins are in the top 50, bad losses are outside the top 100, and head-to-head consists of games played against other Big 12 bubble competition.

Kansas State (11-8, 4-1) RPI 79

Quality wins: Oklahoma

Bad losses: Texas Southern (121)

Road/Neutral wins: Purdue (neutral), Oklahoma

Head-to-head: 1-1

West Virginia (15-3, 3-2) RPI 18

Quality wins: North Carolina State, Oklahoma

Bad losses: None

Road/Neutral wins: Northern Kentucky, Texas Tech, TCU

Head-to-head: 2-0

Oklahoma (12-6, 3-3) RPI 27

Quality wins: Butler, Tulsa, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State

Bad losses: Creighton (140)

Road/Neutral wins: Butler (neutral), Tulsa, Texas

Oklahoma State (13-5, 3-3) RPI 32

Quality wins: Tulsa, Texas

Bad losses: @South Carolina

Road/Neutral wins: Tulsa, Oregon State (neutral), Missouri (neutral)

Head-to-head: 2-1

TCU (14-4, 1-4) RPI 126

Quality wins: Ole Miss

Bad losses: None

Road/Neutral wins: Texas Tech

Head-to-head: 0-2

That RPI doesn't hurt Kansas State as much as the loss column, at least for now. Those two areas are the ones in which the Wildcats have the most catching up to do, but they could make a statement with two wins against fellow bubble teams this week.

Meanwhile, it's kind of amazing to see just how bad TCU's nonconference schedule was. The lone quality win, Ole Miss, is RPI #50. If the Horned Frogs can't win at West Virginia or beat Kansas at home, it's hard to see them ever working themselves back into serious contention.

On the other hand, the Mountaineers would have a solid argument for lock status right now, but I just don't quite believe in them yet. If they beat TCU at home and then win in Bramlage, I doubt I'll be able to keep West Virginia here with the bubble teams next week.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs: The simplest formula here is win at home and avoid bad road losses. Assuming TCU's stock keeps tumbling, that means don't lose at Lubbock or Fort Worth.

Do that, and even a loss in Manhattan to Iowa State or Kansas could be overcome with a win or two in Kansas City. That would get the Wildcats to 19 or 20 wins in the country's best conference, and if they can steal one on the road in a place like Austin, Waco or Morgantown, they'll have at least a solid case.

Mascot of the week: Rather than bash the RPI every week as I did a year ago, I've decided to conclude with a more lighthearted, positive regular feature. I'll be showcasing some of my favorite nicknames in all of college basketball, since knowing them all was a quixotic passion of mine as a kid. Feel free to offer suggestions. Yes, Jon, I'll consider non-Division I teams, but don't bother with that NAIA nonsense (sorry, Moundbuilders).

My initial selection has to be the Fightin' Blue Hens from the University of Delaware, considering they were the namesake of my intramural team in high school and I wore a UD shirt that read "Fear the Bird." The fact that the nickname came from the most successful breed in Revolutionary War cockfights is merely an added bonus.

Unfortunately, the basketball team has rarely, if ever, lived up to that reputation, and so far it has been another dismal year. Despite winning three of their last four, they're 4-14 overall and floundering in the bottom half of the Colonial Conference.