Well, football’s (basically) over, so it’s that time of year where we turn our full attention to basketball. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Kansas State is 12-2 with two close, painful losses but also hasn’t beaten a team in the KenPom top 75. One of the worst noncon schedules in the nation won’t help come Selection Sunday, even if it will get at least a little better with a game at Tennessee.
That being said, this team has given us some reasons to believe it can finally make it back to the tournament, particularly since the Big 12’s depth doesn’t look quite as scary as it did two months ago. DJ Johnson gives the ‘Cats the true leader they’ve lacked the last couple years, Wes can do anything on a good night, and Kamau Stokes is the first point guard since Angel who can distribute the ball or score when needed. Barry Brown keeps getting more consistent on both sides of the court and Dean Wade might be starting to realize his potential, giving K-State one of the Big 12’s best starting lineups, particularly when you factor in chemistry.
Depth is a serious issue, particularly inside. KU and Texas both exposed glaring weaknesses, but the good news is few if any other teams in the conference (OK, probably Baylor) can match the talent and physicality of those two frontcourts. I’m hoping Tuesday’s impressive yet ultimately disappointing performance in Lawrence will convince K-State to keep trying to apply defensive pressure and run in transition a little more, but I’m not holding my breath. That’s not exactly #Weberball.
This will be similar to last year’s initial edition of this feature, focusing less on the current bubble and more on what K-State needs to accomplish over the next two months. Hopefully I’ll have reason to make this a weekly post through mid-March.
Current Status: On the Bubble
This hardly matters right now with so many games left to play, but I’m still a little offended that 12-2 Texas Tech was in Lunardi’s Next Four Out with K-State nowhere to be found, considering the Red Raiders played the worst noncon schedule in the Big 12. That bracket came out before Big 12 play began and Tech lost a lead at Iowa State, then stunned No. 7 West Virginia at home.
I don’t really have a lot to say about nonconference play, except that it sure would have been nice to see Wes make two free throws late against what appears to be a very average to mediocre Maryland team. But at least Melo Trimble’s game-winner was legit.
That being said, Kansas State deserves some credit for taking care of business against lesser opponents. Sure, there were some slow starts, but the fact that every win was by double digits is noteworthy. Nothing is guaranteed, even in “guarantee games.” Just ask Texas.
Speaking of the Longhorns, they looked mostly awful last Saturday, so it was a little disturbing K-State had so much trouble out of the gate and down the stretch. I never thought I’d see a Shaka Smart team with such undisciplined and offensively inept guard play. Still, the Wildcats survived thanks to great free throw shooting (that feels weird to type) and won their conference opener for the first time in 3 years, so we must give thanks.
The best offensive game of the season (and perhaps of the Bruce Weber era) still wasn’t enough in Lawrence, thanks to a combination of impressive shooting by the Jayhawks and awful officiating. We saw the importance of some production off the bench from Xavier Sneed, although he has a freshman tendency to try to do too much every once in a while.
Most encouragingly of all, we saw a Bruce Weber team erase a double-digit second-half deficit in the Big 12’s toughest venue and make some great plays in the final minute, even if Dean Wade’s excellent look didn’t quite fall and Wes barely missed grabbing the rebound. There were no huge mental mistakes and certainly no sign of quitting or looking overwhelmed by the moment. Perhaps this year’s team will prove the Weber-era struggles in close games and on the road were due more to inexperienced players than coaching. We can only hope.
This week: K-State really needs to win at home against Oklahoma, even if Woodard comes back from injury. The more interesting matchup is next Tuesday at Texas Tech. Clearly, the Red Raiders are no pushover, but this is the type of winnable game on the road that could separate these Wildcats from past iterations and their Big 12 peers.
Big 12 bubble competition: Briefly, Kansas, West Virginia and Baylor all look like locks unless something goes terribly wrong, more because of superior nonconference resumes than because they’re head and shoulders above everyone else. Texas is headed for disaster and Oklahoma needs to turn things around in a hurry (aka get Woodard back ASAP) to have any hope. Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU all look to be on the rise with new coaches, but I still feel like all three are at least a year away from the tourney. The Cowboys looked most likely to prove me wrong before January, and Texas Tech looks the best of the trio through two Big 12 games.
That leaves Iowa State, who lost as much talent as anybody from last season. The Cyclones have had their struggles (a 14-point loss at Iowa?) and don’t look like the typical offensive juggernauts in Ames, but I think there’s just too much talent on that roster for a good coach like Steve Prohm to have to settle for the NIT.
What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs: There are a lot of unknowns here, so that means some significant guesswork is involved. Still, it’s worth taking an in-depth look at the remaining schedule and setting some goals for how to become tournament-worthy.
A signature win would be a great place to start, and of course beating Kansas in Manhattan on Feb. 6 would be ideal. But there are also two other key opportunities at home, first against Baylor next Saturday and then against West Virginia the following week. Bramlage needs to be rocking.
If those efforts fall flat, then chances are good we’re looking at a pair of three-game losing streaks or worse. Unless you think K-State can win in Stillwater for the second time since 1993 or pull off an upset in Waco or Morgantown. I’m not optimistic.
Two other road games that could be critical to the Wildcats’ tournament chances come in late January, at Iowa State and at Tennessee. The Vols are just 8-6 and were picked to finish second-to-last in the SEC, so that’s one K-State might need to avoid a bad loss.
It would be immensely helpful to win the six home games not against the conference’s big three, and three road wins among that group to guarantee a .500 record seems very doable. Get a signature win somewhere and suddenly (assuming a win at Tennessee) you’re looking at 22-9 (10-8) going into Kansas City.
That would probably be good enough to make a 68-team bracket out of the conference currently ranked third in the country in most available RPI rankings. I’d like to see the ‘Cats do some serious work in January, although it’s worth noting the final five games (@Texas, vs.OSU, @OU, @TCU, vs.TTU) leave open the realistic possibility of a late surge. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.