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Tournament Thursday: Stay the course

A productive week moved Kansas State closer to making the NCAAs, but it’s not even close to a done deal.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Iowa State
Mr. Stokes did not look like a player with an ankle injury for the vast majority of his last two games.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Anybody else remember when Kansas State was picked to finish 9th in the preseason poll? Honestly, I had basically forgotten until ESPN’s announcers — while watching the game from Charlotte, of course — mentioned it during Tuesday night’s broadcast in Ames.

Perhaps it’s because that ranking always seemed a little too low for a team that finished 8th a year ago with a key injury and returned just about everyone. Still, 5th would have seemed way too high, but that’s where the Wildcats sit, all alone, one game shy of the halfway point with a signature win and nothing close to a bad loss.

Then again, Kansas State is only 2 games better than last-place in the only major conference where every team has at least 2 wins. Plus, three of the four Big 12 wins came against the three teams tied for last place, with 2 of those at home.

All that is to say we should give the ‘Cats some serious credit for what they’ve done so far in improving and generally surpassing most people’s expectations. But we should also realize there’s plenty of work left to be done, and none of it will be easy, even against the SEC.

Once February rolls around we’ll finally delve into some RPI numbers, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much better Maryland looks now. But this week we’ll continue to keep the focus on analysis of K-State’s play to this point and moving steadily forward.

Current status: Right side of the bubble

That first top 10 win counts for a lot and gives the ‘Cats a little more margin for error, which they would do well to keep for a while. Joe Lunardi gave Kansas State a 10-seed and a matchup against the purple Wildcats of Northwestern in his bracket today, while SI’s Michael Beller gave K-State a 9-seed and a matchup with Minnesota prior to the loss at Hilton.

SB Nation’s Chris Dobbertean also released a bracket before Tuesday’s game, giving K-State a 10-seed opposite USC. The Wildcats made it into 77 out of 82 brackets on The Bracket Project and average out as a 10-seed just behind Michigan State but ahead of Clemson.

Last week: At various points in the past week, the ‘Cats looked like they might blow out West Virginia, like they might get blown out by the Mountaineers, like they might totally lay an egg at Iowa State, and like they might finally win in Ames again thanks to a miraculous comeback. It was quite the roller coaster. Of course, none of those things happened, and the final results were ultimately quite satisfactory.

Really, it felt like the best-case scenario, since a win over West Virginia matters a lot more right now than just missing at Ames, as sweet as it would have been to crush their boo-loving fans’ hopes and dreams. Plus, the ‘Cats showed a whole lot of poise in both games, with Kamau Stokes erasing any fears he might be bothered by a lingering ankle injury.

Dean Wade might be a different story, but let’s try not to worry about that until we hear something official. Plus, while K-State is clearly a better team with Wade on the floor and probably can’t compete against top teams without him, the ‘Cats should still be able to find their way to some degree if he’s on the bench for a few games. Not sure if I can say the same for Stokes.

Barry Brown appears to be finding some more consistency as a scorer, and although it took a half, it was nice to see the ‘Cats figure out how to play on offense if DJ Johnson gets taken out of the equation. Isaiah Maurice continues to become a little more reliable each night, and Xavier Sneed keeps solidifying his status as an X-factor off a not-so-deep bench.

This week: It’s impossible to know what to expect from Tennessee on Saturday, but I don’t think you can rule out a letdown after the big win against Kentucky. Certainly, the young, athletic Vols should bring some added confidence into this one, and it’s really unfortunate they finally won a close game against a good team. This would be a solid road win for Kansas State’s resume, especially if Tennessee can build on its two-game win streak upon returning to conference play.

After the first two-game road trip of the season, it’s a bit of a relief the ‘Cats get to come back home and face TCU. Sure, these Frogs aren’t a pushover, but they’re not overly talented and it’s worth noting they’re the only team in the Big 12 with fewer road wins than Kansas State the last 4 seasons.

A 2-0 week is possible and would be very helpful in advance of by far the toughest 3-game stretch on the schedule. An 0-2 week, on the other hand, could wind up being fatal to NCAA tournament hopes.

Big 12 bubble competition: West Virginia righted the ship against Kansas to keep its spot among the top 3 locks, and it’s still a little confusing after that. Iowa State created some separation and could really take a big step with a home win over the Mountaineers next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, TCU and Texas Tech are entering a danger zone thanks to discouraging losing streaks to complement their weak nonconference schedules. Neither can really afford to stumble this weekend at home against a pair of terrible SEC teams, especially the Red Raiders against LSU.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs: A win Saturday in Knoxville and then simply not losing at home the rest of the way would get Kansas State to 21 victories, including two over top 10 opponents. That’s quite possibly good enough for a tournament bid.

Of course, it might not be the easiest path, considering games at Texas, Oklahoma and TCU should all be more winnable than when Kansas comes to Bramlage. I’d love to see KSU take two of those three road tests, along with at least one game in the Big 12 tourney.

I know I’m jumping ahead, but my biggest concern will be how Kansas State responds to a 3-game losing streak if it can’t pull off an upset against KU or on the road against Baylor and West Virginia. Hopefully the experience and leadership on this team — notably Wes and DJ — would be able to help them weather the storm. A bid is certainly there for the taking.