Believe it or not, Kansas State has very much earned the right to be in the NCAA tournament conversation with its performance prior to Big 12 play. The 'Cats didn't do anything spectacular, but they still exceeded most people's expectations (including mine) by going 10-2 in the first 12 of 13 (more on that last one later) nonconference games.
But before we get too excited and set our expectations too high, it's important to understand the difficulty of the road ahead. The Big 12 looks as strong as ever, with quite possibly (especially if you saw that game last night) the two best teams in the country and three more in the Top 25.
If you're familiar with past iterations of this feature (typically called 'Tournament Thursday') this will be an abbreviated version, because it's really not worthwhile to take an in-depth look at whether the 'Cats or anyone else would be in the tourney right now. Instead, we'll focus on what the noncon success means and where K-State needs to be going forward.
Current Status: On the bubble
Again, this is not particularly relevant right now, but it's still fun to note that Kansas State was the first team out in the first NBC sports bracketology, prior to the tough loss to West Virginia. Just take a moment to enjoy that and realize how far this team has progressed since even the beginning of the season.
Nonconference play: A 10-2 record looks pretty great when compared to 7-6, K-State's record prior to Big 12 play a year ago. The only two losses are very respectable 10-point defeats to No. 7 North Carolina (without its best player) and at No. 17 Texas A&M. No shame in either of those, even if it felt like the 'Cats let a great opportunity slip away against the Tar Heels.
On the flip side, Kansas State doesn't have a single win against an ESPN RPI Top 50 team and the impressive come-from-behind road victory at No. 54 Georgia marks the Wildcats' only victory against an RPI Top 125 team. If you want to talk about scoring margins, K-State did a pretty nice job of blowing out everyone with an RPI over 200, but close wins over Columbia (187), Colorado State (197) and South Carolina State (199) aren't exactly inspiring.
The biggest strengths and concerns aren't really anything new, but let's rehash them real quick anyway. Defense and rebounding saved the 'Cats on numerous occasions, notably when shots simple weren't falling or K-State couldn't find any reliable scorers. Those problems will show up more against good competition, so the 'Cats could really benefit if someone like Justin Edwards or Wesley Iwundu or maybe even Kamau Stokes could demand the ball and make plays in key situations.
Overall, it seems quite conceivable we could look back on the 2015 part of this season as a positive sign of things to come, or just a mediocre team taking care of business and not stumbling against inferior opponents. There's still something to be said for the latter, but let's hope it means more than that.
This week: We'll include the West Virginia game here because I meant to post this before then before a trip to Memphis got in the way. It was totally worth it. That was probably the type of win K-State really needed to get to make it to March, but there will be plenty more opportunities. Tuesday's game at Texas will be even tougher, and you can basically pencil the 'Cats in at 0-3 if they lose in Austin with a trip to Norman coming up on Saturday.
Big 12 bubble competition: Again, this section is pretty irrelevant right now. At the moment, though, it would take something truly bizarre for Oklahoma, Kansas or Iowa State to miss the tourney. West Virginia and Baylor look solid as well, while Texas is slightly more shaky after two straight losses. Texas Tech's chances look surprisingly good at the moment but could change quickly, and Oklahoma State needs to change course to have a chance. Still, the fact that nine of ten teams have a legit shot is scary.
What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs: OK. Here's the most important part of this post. K-State is sitting at No. 56 in the latest ESPN RPI in the nation's toughest conference, so clearly the opportunity is there. But it will not be an easy road.
It's always tough to predict how soft the bubble will be two months from now and what it will take to get into the NCAA tourney. Still, I'm willing to give it a try. I have a hard time imagining a scenario where a team with a winning record in the Big 12 doesn't make it, unless TCU miraculously goes 10-8 or something. For K-State, 10-8 would mean at least 20 wins, which history tells us should definitely be good enough. In fact, I'd say 18 would be fine and 17 might be right on the bubble, so the 'Cats probably need a minimum of six or seven conference wins.
I say six or seven because there's still one key game left outside the Big 12, when Ole Miss comes to visit Bramlage on Jan. 30. Before you write off the Rebels (No. 52 ESPN RPI) as an easy win because they're a non-Kentucky SEC team, consider that they are 10-3 with wins at UMass and Memphis, and point guard Stefon Moody is the best player under six feet tall in the country. He averages 23.7 per game and makes the Rebels an interesting challenge, as well as a valuable win if K-State can get it.
Now back to the Big 12. Two wins against TCU are a must, and you'd like to think K-State could get at least a split against both Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. A sweep against one of those two opponents would be huge, then it probably comes down to defending the home court.
This is a good time to remind everyone that for all his struggles, Bruce Weber is still an incredible 23-5 at home in Big 12 play, including 2-1 vs. Kansas. Beating the Jayhawks would be a huge ask this year, but a win over KU, OU or probably ISU sure would go a long way. Add that to wins over Texas and Baylor, and suddenly seven wins seems very possible.
Before you get too excited, though, consider that we're assuming no stumbles from a young team not exactly defined by consistency. I truly believe that outside of maybe games in Norman and Lawrence, the 'Cats could compete with anyone in the Big 12 on any given night, but that goes both ways. With the possible exception of TCU, anyone on the schedule will beat Kansas State on a poor shooting night, or if the newcomers don't bring the necessary amount of energy to defense or rebounding.
They may have survived a couple duds in nonconference play, but that simply can't happen anymore. If this team is going to make the tourney, it needs to stay healthy, catch a couple breaks (shooting over 40% from 3 would be nice) and always be ready to take advantage if it catches an opponent on an off night.
Follow that formula, and Bruce Weber should be celebrated for taking this roster to the NCAA tournament. But the nonconference should also raise expectations enough that if things go poorly and K-State ends up missing the NIT, a new coach for next season should be on the table.