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Tournament Thursday: Dark cloud rising

A second painful road loss influenced by officiating means the road ahead remains difficult for a team good enough to navigate it.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Texas Tech
This guy is now Kansas State’s leading scorer in Big 12 play.
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Does anyone else have the sinking feeling that we’re going to look back in March and point at the awful officiating in these last two games as the reason Kansas State gets left out of the field? Sadly, considering the morbid history of KSU athletics, I doubt I’m alone. Please, please let us all be wrong.

Am I saying that Kansas State is clearly a tournament team and Bruce Weber has overcome his apparent deficiencies in closing out tight games, particularly on the road? Not at all. If the ‘Cats weren’t a bubble team, it would take more than a few bad calls to knock them out. I’m not sure K-State’s late game offense is anything more than give it to Wes and attack, and it’s just not built to waste 20 seconds of shot clock before scoring.

The hard truth is, no matter how well they play, I can’t see K-State in the tournament or support Bruce Weber coaching beyond this season until his team beats someone decent on the road. This might sound crazy to someone who doesn’t follow the ‘Cats, but I would absolutely rather have seen a win at Texas Tech than a win over No. 1 Baylor on Saturday.

Still, they’ve shown some signs of improvement. The free throws against Texas. Virtually everything late against Kansas. The Xavier Sneed block and Barry Brown drive to the hoop, drawing the (uncalled) foul plus the 3 at the end. Surely, the ‘Cats will catch a break (or at least not get screwed) and be able to pull one of these out, right? Right?

Anyway, we’ve still got a lot more to talk about in looking back at the previous two games (one was great) and looking ahead to the next two, both of which are very important. The fact that Florida and especially Minnesota are in the top 5 (???still true????) shows us it’s still far too early to talk about the RPI or dive deep into tournament resumes, so we won’t do that yet. You don’t want to see K-State’s noncon opponents. Trust me.

Current status: On the bubble

Lunardi is updating his brackets every Thursday, which is obviously not great for this feature. I’ll talk to him and see if we can get in sync. But he did put the ‘Cats in his Next Four Out prior to the OU win, so that’s something. Update: Lunardi put KSU second in his First Four Out in today’s bracket.

SI’s Michael Beller put K-State as his very last team in the bracket, good enough for an 11 seed and what would be an incredibly intriguing play-in game against Illinois for the right to play Clemson. The Bracket Project, on the other hand, has Kansas State as its first team out, just ahead of Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

Last week: It started off well enough. Kansas State took care of business in convincing fashion, taking a huge early lead and answering the inevitable Oklahoma run in the second half to cruise to an 11-point win it absolutely had to have. Dean Wade’s emergence continued as the ‘Cats put together another nice team effort.

Then, K-State traveled to Lubbock. It was a struggle, as all road games for the majority of Big 12 teams will be this year. Just four of 18 road teams had won in conference games before Oklahoma State and Texas fell Wednesday night, with KU winning two and Baylor and West Virginia each getting one.

Still, the ‘Cats had a chance to separate themselves in an ugly game, thanks to some good defense and a second-half offensive surge from Wade. But this time when K-State began to stretch things out, Texas Tech quickly closed the gap with an 8-0 run, and then the final 2 minutes happened.

K-State had a 4-point lead when Kamau Stokes missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and Wes made an inexplicable pass to a defender after getting his path was cut off on a drive, leading to a TTU fast break. Both of those hurt a lot. The Red Raiders made some costly mistakes of their own, including 3 missed free throws by Zach Smith on one possession.

But the refs sure didn’t miss any opportunities in the final minute to help the home team, beginning with back-to-back phantom fouls on Barry Brown and Dean Wade (his 5th) and concluding with an egregious no-call on Brown’s missed layup that led to a puzzling technical on Bruce Weber. I won’t even mention a couple more no-calls that were also questionable.

All in all, it led to Kansas State’s 18th road loss in its last 19 games, including 5 that were decided by 3 points or less or went to overtime. That’s troubling. There’s plenty of blame to go around, so feel free to divvy it up however you’d like.

This week: Things don’t get any easier, unless you think Baylor is going to play as badly on Saturday in Manhattan as it did Tuesday in Morgantown. I don’t. Still, a signature win in that one seems much more achievable than it did a week ago, so this is really a great opportunity.

If it doesn’t happen, a trip to Stillwater takes on added significance as the ‘Cats try to avoid a costly losing streak. Sure, the Cowboys haven’t looked great lately, but Gallagher-Iba has been a notoriously difficult place for Kansas State to win.

Big 12 bubble competition: The Big 12 bubble is looking like it could include at least three other teams, possibly four. Oklahoma State appears to be fading fast but shouldn’t be counted out just yet, leaving us with Texas Tech, Iowa State and TCU.

The Cowboys are only still in the mix thanks to the strongest noncon resume in the group and K-State could deal them a significant blow next week in Stillwater. Texas Tech looks legit with a relatively easy 3-game stretch coming up (@OU, vs.TCU, vs.OSU) and ISU should feel pretty good so long as it can pick up a road win at TCU or at OU before K-State heads to Ames. I’m still not sold on TCU just yet.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs: Nothing has changed significantly here from last week, except that the ‘Cats have one less opportunity to pick up one of the 3 road wins they probably need against the rest of the league’s bottom 7 teams. Still, 3 out of 5 on the road against Iowa State and (more realistically) the four teams below them in the league standings seems quite possible.

We learned even a close loss on the road to a team like Kansas can be helpful in terms of public opinion. But what would be much more helpful is an upset of either Baylor this Saturday or West Virginia next Saturday in Bramlage. If not, and especially if combined with another slip-up somewhere, it’s possible the return game against the Jayhawks becomes something close to a must-win. Not ideal.