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Tournament Tuesday: K-State can do this

These Wildcats have surprised most of us by reaching this point, so maybe it's time to start believing they could traverse the treacherous road ahead and make the Big Dance.

Here's hoping we get to see a few more celebrations like this.
Here's hoping we get to see a few more celebrations like this.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

This is not a drill. Kansas State beat the No. 1 team in the country on Saturday and isn't that far out of the NCAA tournament picture, so it's not unreasonable to assume the Wildcats could find a way to go dancing. Is it likely? Maybe not.

But before we really get started here, let's take a moment to appreciate how impressive it is that the 'Cats even got here. A team with very little returning production and three freshmen playing critical roles for most of the season avoided any bad losses and has become legitimately one of the best in the country defensively through sheer determination, chemistry and will. Even more impressively, since losing their starting point guard, the 'Cats held on for a win over Ole Miss, gave KU something of a run and then handed OU just its third loss of the season, beating the Sooners by more than Iowa State and KU combined.

On one final note, I've seen the discussions about whether it would be better to go to the NIT and while I understand it, I completely disagree. Playing in the NCAA tournament means so much more in every way and would be a great experience for this young team, even if it's just one game.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's turn our attention back to the only postseason competition that really matters in college basketball. I never felt like the 'Cats deserved consideration until they beat an at-large worthy team, and they've certainly accomplished that goal.

Sadly, the method of determining the 68 teams lucky enough to play in it still relies far too heavily on the RPI, so here's a look at where K-State's opponents stack up as of Monday, according to ESPN.

Maryland Eastern-Shore: 272
Columbia: 120
South Dakota: 186
Missouri: 198
North Carolina: 9
South Carolina State: 206
Georgia: 63
Coppin State: 313
Texas A&M: 17
Colorado State: 182
North Dakota: 230
Saint Louis: 189
West Virginia: 10
Texas: 20
Oklahoma: 1
Texas Tech: 52
Iowa State: 13
Baylor: 24
Oklahoma State: 140
Ole Miss: 82
Kansas: 6

As you can see, K-State did a much better job than in some previous years of not scheduling too many 200+ or especially 300+ opponents. In fact, if you could take away the three MEAC opponents (UMES, Coppin State, South Carolina State) this would be a really RPI-friendly schedule.

It is a little disappointing to see Mizzou and Saint Louis struggling so much, and really, it's astonishing to me how terrible Oklahoma State is rated. There's really not too much different between the Cowboys and Texas Tech, but the Red Raiders did a much better job of scheduling mediocre rather than awful teams and, of course, not losing to them. Those losses to George Mason and Missouri State probably still sting for OSU.

Pleasant surprises include Georgia staying in the top half of the SEC and Colorado State getting off to a respectable start in the Mountain West. If Columbia could win out and take the Ivy League title, that would be great.

Current Status: Out

Yes, some brackets put Kansas State in the tournament. 22 of the 80 in The Bracket Project's matrix, in fact. But the general consensus seems to be the 'Cats are on the outside of the bubble looking in, and for some reason, they don't seem to have improved much after losing at Allen Fieldhouse and beating Oklahoma. Yeah, I can't figure that one out either.

Shelby Mast's bracketology for USA Today is one of our favorites this week, since he put Kansas State into a play-in game against George Washington. GW lost at Saint Louis, by the way. The winner would face 5 seed Kentucky in Oklahoma City with a possible second-round matchup against No. 4 seed Miami and Angel Rodriguez.

Lunardi's latest bracketology doesn't even list Kansas State in his Next Four Out, where you can find UCLA, Oregon State, Georgetown and Georgia. Head-to-head win on the Bulldogs' home court aside, I'd take K-State's resume over all of those teams. UCLA and Oregon State don't even have winning records in the Pac-12, and Georgetown is only 14-11 overall.

CBS' Jerry Palm is much more generous, lisitng the 'Cats as his second team out just in front of Texas Tech. However, he had K-State in his First Four Out last week and kept OU as his No. overall seed, so that seems kind of puzzling to me.

SI's Michael Beller chose Iowa as his No. 1 overall seed, which is borderline crazy, so I'm not worried about the Wildcats being left out of his "First Four Out.". Our friend Chris Dobbertean of SB Nation hasn't created a bracket since before the Oklahoma upset, but I'm still kind of mad at him for listing K-State as No. 86 behind teams like Nebraska, Creighton and Tulsa. At least they're ahead of Georgia.

EDIT: Chris was paying attention over the weekend, so he moved the Wildcats into his Next Four Out and even wrote a post titled "Metric-Based Bracketology: Look out for K-State and Saint Joe's." In it, he points out that both the RPI and KenPom rate Kansas State better than most bracketologists.

Last week: K-State began the week with its best performance in Lawrence since Cartier Martin and Clent Stewart led the 'Cats to an improbably 59-55 win. Eventually, KU woke up, got some help from the refs and pulled away for a typical comfortable victory, but those who watched know it was an encouraging step forward for Kansas State.

Whether it carried over into Saturday is hard to say, since the Wildcats fell behind 9-0 from the opening tip against Oklahoma. But give Bruce Weber credit for taking a risk and benching Dean Wade and Wesley Iwundu Justin Edwards to send a message. They received it loud and clear, especially Wade, combining for 28 points 10-of-18 shooting and grabbing 14 rebounds in an 80-69 win.

Maybe even more importantly, Wes turned in a standout defensive performance on Buddy Hield, who still managed to finish with 23 points. But make no mistake, the nation's best player looked out of sorts and often his teammates didn't seem to know what to do without Hield creating the offense or at least causing enough of a distraction to open the court for others.

This week: It's another pivotal one, which basically means just another week in the Big 12. Baylor comes to Manhattan Wednesday for a difficult test in which K-State can't afford a letdown, then the Wildcats will look to win in Stillwater for the second time since 1993 against a weak Cowboys team.

Win these two games and you can expect to see KSU in close to every bracket at this time next week. If the Wildcats lose both of them they'll put themselves in a very tough position.

The good news is neither OSU nor Baylor put up a lot of points on a regular basis. Baylor is fifth, one spot ahead of K-State with 74 points per game in Big 12 play, while Oklahoma State is 9th at 66.5. That means just bring the energy, play great defense, and the 'Cats won't necessarily need to shoot the lights out.

A week after two mentally and physically draining games would be a great time for the upperclassmen to step up and lead the way. Iwundu can just keep doing what he did Saturday, and hopefully senior Justin Edwards can realize he's capable of making some plays when he attacks the rim aggressively.

Big 12 bubble competition: This section will be smaller than usual, because six of the conference's ten teams are comfortably in the bracket right now. Remember, my definition of 'lock' is much more lenient than a lot of the national writers who track this kind of thing.

TCU and Oklahoma State are both 11-13 with two Big 12 wins, so that leaves us with just one other school. Still, it's an interesting comparison..

As always, quality wins are in the ESPN RPI 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 (14-9, 3-7) RPI 35

Quality wins: Oklahoma (1)

Bad losses:

Road/Neutral wins: Georgia, Missouri (in KC), Colorado State (in Wichita)

Head-to-head: 1-0

Texas Tech (13-9, 3-7) RPI 52

Quality wins: South Dakota State (48), Texas (20)

Bad losses: None

Road/Neutral wins: TCU, Mississippi State (in Puerto Rico), Minnesota (in Puerto Rico)

Head-to-head: 0-1

South Dakota State doesn't have anything resembling a decent win, so I think you can take that game out and find two incredibly similar resumes here. It's good to see the Red Raiders' RPI has taken quite a tumble, which seems appropriate.

They suffered a costly loss at Arkansas (RPI 88) in the Big 12/SEC Challenge and don't have nonconference losses to teams as good as UNC or Texas A&M to prop them up, although Utah isn't bad. Still, if Texas Tech can't turn things around and at least win one of two games this week vs. Iowa State or at Baylor, it might be time to say goodbye to the Red Raiders' tourney hopes.

It might work out quite nicely for Kansas State to go to Lubbock on the last day of the season if it's meaningless for TTU and K-State has a potential NCAA bid on the line. But this is still a somewhat dangerous team.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs: Given how terrible Bruce Weber teams have been in away conference games and how great they've been at home, it only makes sense to break the remainder of the schedule down into two groups. The 'Cats have four home games and four road games remaining with a chance to get to 20 wins and feel good about their chances if they can win five of them.

A win over TCU is obviously a must, which leaves Baylor, Kansas and Texas coming to Manhattan. None of those will be easy. Honestly, KU might be the best matchup for the 'Cats, although clearly a two-overtime loss in Waco and a 3-point loss in Austin make both of those seem winnable. Take two out of three and KSU should be in good shape.

On the road, it would be foolish to expect Kansas State to come away with a win at Ames, but the other three games are against the Big 12's bottom feeders. Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and TCU are all very beatable even on their home courts this season, so K-State just needs to come out with energy, not be intimidated, and win two out of those three. Shouldn't be a problem, I hope.

That would mean a 20-12 overall record with likely another win over a weak team available in Kansas City before a tough second day matchup. I'd like to think 21-13 without a bad loss out of the Big 12 this season gets you on the right side of the bubble. It would be great to find out -- or even better, just win enough the committee can't possibly justify leaving Kansas State out.