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Tournament Thursday: A step in the right direction

A long-awaited Big 12 road win kept Kansas State’s hopes alive heading into another critical, challenging week.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Texas Tech
Is DJ Johnson now one of the league’s best power forwards?
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve said before I couldn’t take Kansas State seriously as a tournament team without a Big 12 road win. Well, it finally happened. Sure, it came against the conference’s only winless team and was vastly overshadowed by Oklahoma’s stunning upset at West Virginia, but it still made me feel a lot better.

DJ Johnson has become a truly powerful offensive force inside, Barry Brown is showing signs of becoming a consistent scoring leader on the perimeter, and this offense looks downright dangerous when Dean Wade gets assertive with the basketball. The ‘Cats are even shooting almost 77% from the line over the past 3 games. 77%!

That being said, things aren’t getting any easier and the margin of error remains very thin. Kamau Stokes hopefully won’t miss any time with his ankle injury, but even if he plays at just 80% or worse it could be very costly moving forward. The ride’s going to be bumpy, so let’s just hope it ends with an NCAA bid.

Current status: On the bubble

Not a lot has changed here and it still doesn’t really matter much this early. Still, it’s fun to know Joe Lunardi put Kansas State as his last team in this morning, giving them a play-in matchup with Seton Hall and rarely-used backup point guard Jevon Thomas. SI’s Michael Beller gave the ‘Cats a spot in his Last Four In and put them in a play-in game against Rhode Island for the right to face Cincinnati.

The Bracket Project also likes K-State as an 11-seed, with 39 of 76 (51%) brackets giving the ‘Cats a spot. SB Nation’s own Chris Dobbertean gave Kansas St. little love Thursday, putting them in his Next Four Out. Ouch.

Last week: No huge surprises here, although it’s hard to fault anyone who thought the ‘Cats might drop two straight and fall into a hole they couldn’t get out of. So in that sense, a 1-1 week feels surprisingly good.

Somehow, K-State stayed in the game with then-No. 1 Baylor for about 35 minutes while playing far from its best basketball, thanks in large part to the efforts of Johnson. He absolutely dominated the paint at times against guys much taller and longer than him, showing off incredible strength and athleticism.

Sadly, he didn’t get enough help and the Bears really are quite good, so they eventually pulled away to disappoint the crowd at Bramlage. It’s an opportunity missed, to be sure, but when a 77-68 loss to No. 1 is your biggest margin of defeat by 7 points, it’s a sign you’re ready to compete with anyone every night.

Of course, the biggest concern was the inability to finish off wins, especially away from home, so it was great to see Kansas State do just that at Oklahoma State. To survive a 54-point half and then turn a 5-point lead with 2 and a half minutes left into a 96-88 win is definitely encouraging, even if there were some familiar mental mistakes down the stretch.

This week: Every week from here on out is huge when you’re a bubble team, so that’s hardly news. The interesting thing about games vs. West Virginia and at Iowa State is they’re two wins the ‘Cats don’t necessarily need to make the Big Dance (see below) but they sure would go a long ways towards making February less stressful.

It’s not crazy to think Kansas State could pull off an upset or two, either. Sure, West Virginia looked invincible and energized in crushing Baylor, and it’s possible those Mountaineers might show up in Manhattan after losing by 2 in overtime as 16.5 point favorites on Wednesday.

However, WVU also barely won at Texas the game before, so perhaps they’re just slipping a bit. Then again, even at Bramlage, it’s very difficult to see the ‘Cats surviving against Press Virginia for 40 minutes if Stokes can’t play or is significantly limited by his ankle injury.

That bring us to the game at Hilton, where K-State has lost 5 straight. The Cyclones might be slightly down, but they’ve still got an incredible player in Monte Morris and one of the best homecourt advantages in the conference.

Big 12 bubble competition: Oklahoma State joins Texas and OU clearly on the outside looking in, where it will take 2 or 3 big wins to get back into contention. Obviously, the top 3 are still locked into good spots, even if West Virginia dropped a seed line or two.

The other three remain very interesting, and the numbers to watch will be road wins and home losses. So far, Texas Tech is the only team of the trio without a home loss, but also the only one without a road win. Combine that with the worst noncon SOS in the country according to KenPom, and the Red Raiders clearly need to pick up the pace.

In terms of resumes, Iowa State and TCU really aren’t that far apart, but I still like the Cyclones quite a bit more just based on the talent they put on the floor. Perhaps they’ll begin to separate this week when ISU travels to Norman and hosts KSU, while TCU hosts Baylor and travels to Oklahoma State.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs: The formula remains the same, and K-State stayed on pace to achieve it by picking up one of the three necessary road wins. Notably, though, it came against quite possibly the conference’s worst team. Certainly the worst at this moment, and suddenly a win at Norman looks like it will be a lot tougher assuming Jordan Woodard stays healthy.

The next three conference road games are the toughest ones left, at Ames, Waco and Morgantown. Winning any one of those would feel like a bonus and could definitely take some stress out of what might very well be the Big 12’s most favorable schedule to end conference play. I challenge anyone to find a final 6-game stretch easier than vs.ISU, @UT, vs.OSU, @OU, @TCU and vs. TTU.

Of course, with a true round-robin schedule that means it’s going to be tough elsewhere, and K-State must be careful to keep playing well during this upcoming rough patch. That might not always mean a win, but when the losses start piling up and everything starts spiraling downward is when the ‘Cats could get into trouble.

Fortunately, they look like a team able to avoid that problem so far with some solid senior leadership from DJ and Wes, not to mention Stokes’ guidance at point guard. Even if Kansas State doesn’t pull off what would have to be considered a surprise somewhere and falls to 4-8 in league play, that’s not necessarily reason to despair.

While the ‘Cats won’t ever get close to lock status without significantly improving on their best win of the season (probably @OSU right now) they might not need any major upsets to reach their postseason goals. Simply continue to take care of business at home against everyone outside the top 3, win a couple road games, win at Tennessee or on the opening day of the Big 12 tourney, and 21-10 or 21-11 with a 9-9 Big 12 record and no bad losses could be good enough.

Obviously, though, it would be ideal if that win total got bumped up to 22 or 23 by knocking off a top-tier opponent and we didn’t have to sweat it out.