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Tournament Thursday: Searching for a point guard

Kansas State's lack of a point guard will make winning very hard in the postseason -- if the Wildcats can even get there.

It's not too late for Jevon Thomas to blossom into a good point guard. I hope.
It's not too late for Jevon Thomas to blossom into a good point guard. I hope.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Apparently I felt like torturing myself today, because I got the irresistible urge to check out how Angel Rodriguez is doing in his junior year at Miami. He's still not the most efficient scorer at worse than 34 percent from the field, though part of that may be the fact that he's the man for the Hurricanes and has taken more shots than anyone else.

Otherwise, he's been fantastic, averaging 13.7 points, 4.6 assists, 2.2 steals and 2.4 turnovers per game while shooting a respectable 75.5% from the free throw line. Basically, the progression you'd expect from the electric sophomore who helped carry Bruce Weber's team to a shared Big 12 regular season title and a No. 4 seed in the 2013 NCAA tournament.

You all know what happened next, and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say Weber's greatest failure in an otherwise solid tenure has been the inability to find a reliable replacement. Sophomores Jevon Thomas and Nigel Johnson are averaging a combined 9.7 points and 3.5 turnovers per game (nearly 75% are Jevon) while showing few signs of the leadership needed at the position.

Those dismal numbers fail to tell the whole story of their struggles, despite flashes of competence from both. Johnson can shoot well but has a sometimes baffling shot selection, while Thomas might be one of the Big 12's best on-ball defenders, but still can't finish near the rim or make free throws reliably enough to even stay in the game during crunch time.

Inconsistent and generally poor point guard play spells disaster in the postseason, whether it's the NCAA tourney or the CBI, which quite honestly looks more likely right now. I'm doing my best to hold out hope at least one of them can figure it out, and I still think Thomas is the best bet, but patience is running thin.

Marcus Foster's dream world of playing the point as a dynamic scorer never came close to materializing for a plethora of reasons, and KSU is still waiting for him to get hot from the wing. Meanwhile, K-State's slim tourney hopes remained on life support when it was revealed Nino Williams just has a minor knee injury and will return to the court soon.

Here's the abbreviated RPI watch:

Southern Utah: ESPN RPI 322
Long Beach State: ESPN RPI 73
Purdue: ESPN RPI 89
Arizona: ESPN RPI 5
Pittsburgh: ESPN RPI 83
Nebraska-Omaha: ESPN RPI 307
Tennessee: ESPN RPI 53
Bradley: ESPN RPI 258
Savannah State: ESPN RPI 306
Texas A&M: ESPN RPI 31
Texas Southern: ESPN RPI 151
Georgia: ESPN RPI 24

Texas Southern lost a league game and plummeted 30 spots, because that's how terrible the SWAC is. Speaking of terrible conferences (minus Kentucky), Texas A&M and Georgia have both won five straight games in the SEC, so that's cool.

Current Status: Out

If K-State had been able to eke out a win against the Fighting Huggy Bears, they just might be on the right side of the bubble at this moment. Instead, the 'Cats find themselves well on the outside looking in with 10 games to play. That's not good.

Lunardi hasn't updated since Monday, when he actually put Kansas State in a play-in game against North Carolina State as an at-large 11 seed opposite Northern Iowa. I'd take that draw in a heartbeat.

SI's Michael Beller also updated Monday and apparently forgot a couple Wildcat losses, because he actually had them as an 8 seed opposite LSU with No. 1 seed Gonzaga waiting in the wings. Jerry Palm of CBS released a bracket Thursday and did not even put K-State in his first four out, which seems much more realistic.

Shelby Mast of USA Today did put the 'Cats in his First Four Out on Wednesday, so I guess it's possible the bubble is softer than I think. Meanwhile, The Bracket Project puts K-State as the fifth team out with nothing higher than an 11 seed, except for Beller, of course.

Last week: Kansas State needed to win two winnable home games. It got one. On the plus side, Oklahoma State bounced back to knock off Baylor on Tuesday, so maybe the Cowboys aren't going to take the nose dive I was kind of expecting and that win will mean something.

Then there was West Virginia. On paper, it doesn't look like a bad loss at all, which is really the best thing anyone can say about that game. Williams' injury and an inability to break the full court, full contact press or make free throws proved to be K-State's downfall in another one we may look back on with regret in March.

Before that, though, the 'Cats looked quite good in a convincing win over the same Cowboys who dominated the second half in Stillwater. Nino Williams and Justin Edwards were the heroes as Marcus Foster's 3-point struggles intensified. He has made just four of his last 23 from beyond the arc.

This week: Just about every season in the Big 12, the quickest way to get back into contention for the NCAA tournament is winning a game at Allen Fieldhouse. Unfortunately, history tells us it's also really, really difficult.

Everything changes for the better if K-State pulls that one off, but either way next Wednesday's game at Texas Tech is basically a must-win. Oklahoma's demolition last night proved the Red Raiders' stunning win over Iowa State was more fluke than turning a corner, so this should be the easiest remaining game on KSU's schedule. Obviously, that doesn't make it a gimme.

Lose both games in the next seven days and this feature will not exist in its current form next Thursday. Go 1-1 and tourney hopes will remain thanks in large part to the daunting schedule that lies ahead, full of opportunities.

What Kansas State must do to make the NCAAs: Reaching 12 conference wins feels imperative, so that means seven more. Home games against Texas and Oklahoma are obvious candidates, as are the trips to bottom dwellers TCU and Texas Tech.

Finding an additional three wins looks like a significantly more difficult challenge. Defending Bramlage would be a good start, although K-State's final two home games are against perhaps the Big 12's top two teams, Kansas and Iowa State. The 'Cats now probably need at least one win at West Virginia, Baylor or Texas. This is going to be hard.

Maybe 11 wins and a run to the tournament final would get K-State a look, but it's probably not a good idea to test that theory.

Big 12 bubble competition: Poor TCU. The Horned Frogs are clearly a lot better this year and were remarkably close to huge upsets at Morgantown and home against Kansas. Instead, they're just a half game ahead of Texas Tech and fighting mostly for pride or an NIT bid at this point.

On the other hand, West Virginia moves into lock status and should improve to 18-3 with a home matchup against Texas Tech scheduled for Saturday. The Mountaineers still have most of their toughest games remaining, but two against Kansas means they're still very much in contention for a conference title.

Is Iowa State really no longer a lock? Probably not. But lose to Texas Tech and you deserve to be here for a week. I also added Texas and Baylor because both have losing records in Big 12 play.

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 (12-9, 5-2) RPI 77

Quality wins: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Baylor

Bad losses: Texas Southern (151)

Road/Neutral wins: Purdue (neutral), Oklahoma, Texas A&M (neutral but not really in KC)

Head-to-head: 2-1

Iowa State (15-4, 5-2) RPI 15

Quality wins: Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Texas

Bad losses: South Carolina (113), @Texas Tech

Road/Neutral wins: Iowa, Alabama (neutral), Drake (neutral), West Virginia

Head-to-head: 2-1

Baylor (15-5, 3-4) RPI 22

Quality wins: Texas A&M, Iowa State, Oklahoma

Bad losses: None

Road/Neutral wins: Memphis (neutral), South Carolina, Vanderbilt, TCU

Head-to-head: 2-3

Texas (14-6, 3-4) RPI 28

Quality wins: Iowa, West Virginia

Bad losses: None

Road/Neutral wins: UConn, Iowa (neutral), California (neutral), Texas Tech, TCU

Head-to-head: 0-3

Oklahoma (13-7, 4-4) RPI 33

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

Bad losses: Creighton (121)

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

Head-to-head: 3-2

Oklahoma State (14-6, 4-4) RPI 32

Quality wins: Tulsa, Texas, Baylor

Bad losses: @South Carolina

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

Head-to-head: 3-3

Iowa State can go back to lock status as long as they beat TCU, regardless of what happens in Lawrence next Monday. As usual, chances abound for other teams as well with Texas@Baylor, Oklahoma@Oklahoma State, Oklahoma@West Virginia and Texas@Oklahoma State all providing great matchups.

How good is the Big 12? KU moved in front of Kentucky in this week's ESPN RPI. Yes, I know that's absolutely absurd and I don't agree at all, but it just shows you how strong the computers believe this league is.

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).

This week's team is the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, mostly because Big Red is one of the coolest mascots around. He bumped into me in an elevator when I was covering a football game in Bowling Green once, and it was a special moment I'll never forget.

WKU student Ralph Carey came up with the ingenious idea for the big red blob in 1979 since no one could think of anything better to represent the athletic teams named for the fact that in 1910 the campus moved from downtown to the hill 322 feet above the Barren River. Unfortunately, WKU still keeps the spirit of the early 20th century alive by referring to its women's teams as the 'Lady Toppers.'