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Tournament Thursday: Finding reasons for hope

Kansas State needs a turnaround as it hits the most favorable part of the Big 12 grind.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Texas Tech
DJ Johnson needs to get back to 100% immediately if Kansas State’s going to make a serious run at making the NCAA tourney.
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Exactly 5 years ago, Kansas State sat squarely on the bubble coming off a rough stretch of four losses in its last six games to fall below .500 in Big 12 play. An unfriendly schedule beginning with two top 10 teams on the road made the five remaining regular season games look like an uphill battle for an NCAA tournament. Then Angel Rodriguez and Rodney McGruder carried the ‘Cats to two huge upsets, helping Frank Martin’s team win 4 of 5 to get in comfortably with an 8 seed, despite a first-round exit in Kansas City.

I tell you this story not because I believe it will happen again, or because those Wildcats bear much resemblance to Bruce Weber’s group this year. They don’t. But if you’re like me, you need something positive right now and a reminder that even though things look grim at the moment, change could be right around the corner.

Plus, as I’ll discuss in more depth later, the schedule doesn’t look nearly as daunting. Of course, that’s a double-edged sword, since it means wins won’t hold the same value and any loss will be painful. Still, it’s far too early to give up on Kansas State, even if no one with the game-changing offensive ability of a Rodriguez or a McGruder is walking through that door. Even if Bruce Weber’s post-Valentine’s Day record of 16-19 since arriving in Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Let’s take a quick look at the noncon numbers.

Western Illinois (8-16) T-319/303
Nebraska-Omaha (13-13) 183/200
Hampton (11-13) 310/312
Robert Morris (10-17) 260/268
Boston College (9-18) 200/149
Maryland (22-4) 19/32
UW Green Bay (15-11) 138/179
Saint Louis (9-17) T-244/291
Prairie View A&M (8-18) 314/317
Washington State (11-14) 161/205
Colorado State (18-9) 102/95
Gardner-Webb (15-13) 216/203
Tennessee (14-12) 43/42

Colorado State keeps winning, so Kansas State finally had a top 100 nonconference win briefly earlier this week. That’s helpful, and the Rams made it look even better by moving into first place in the Mountain West. Sadly, Green Bay moved in the opposite direction with back-to-back losses, and Tennessee could be crashing after a one-point loss to Georgia at home and getting absolutely blown out at Kentucky.

Current status: Very bubbly

Most brackets put Kansas State in prior to the loss to Iowa State on Wednesday, but I have to assume that will knock the ‘Cats out of a few. Joe Lunardi kept them in for now, as an 11-seed and one of the last four “byes” with a first-round matchup (I refuse to call it the second-round) against Notre Dame.

Earlier this week, SB Nation’s Chris Dobbertean gave Kansas State a 10-seed and a matchup with SMU, SI’s Michael Beller gave the ‘Cats a 10-seed and a game against Saint Mary’s, and Ryan Fagan at The Sporting News dropped K-State to an 11-seed. The Bracket Project gives the Wildcat a 9-seed and a spot in a stunning 111 of 112 brackets (curse you TD Brackets).

Last week: This wasn’t quite as bad as consecutive losses to Tennessee and TCU, but it sure didn’t feel good. A dismal second half doomed Kansas State in an ugly, whistle-filled 85-66 loss at West Virginia, then Iowa State jumped ahead early and held off a bit of a rally after halftime to send the ‘Cats to an 87-79 loss.

We learned rebounding is a serious weakness without a healthy DJ Johnson (not surprising) and we saw Dean Wade’s offensive confidence, especially from the 3-point line, largely disappear. Perhaps most concerning, Kansas State gave up 85 points in two consecutive games for the first time since January 2002. That’s not going to work with Weber’s halfcourt offense.

This week: Kansas State could really use two wins at Texas and home against Oklahoma State. This feature won’t have a reason to exist next week if the ‘Cats lose both of those, so it’s concerning that the Longhorns have won three straight home games and the Cowboys have won 7 of their last 8, including all 4 of their road games during that stretch.

Big 12 bubble competition: Texas Tech nearly came within a basket of beating KU and Baylor back-to-back, while Oklahoma State resumed its rise up the standings. Iowa State is closing in on lock status, and TCU tumbled with two straight losses.

Kansas State (16-10, 5-8) RPI 54, KenPom 28

Quality Wins: Oklahoma State (28), West Virginia (29), Baylor (1)

Bad Losses: None

Road/Neutral Wins: Boston College (in Brooklyn), Saint Louis, Oklahoma State, Baylor

Head-to-Head: 1-4

Iowa State (14-9, 8-5) RPI 46, KenPom 26

Quality Wins: Oklahoma State (28), Kansas (2)

Bad Losses: Texas

Road/Neutral Wins: Indiana State (in Lake Buena Vista), Miami (in Lake Buena Vista), Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Kansas, Kansas State

Head-to-Head: 4-1

Oklahoma State (17-9, 6-7) RPI 28, KenPom 20

Quality Wins: TCU twice (48), Arkansas (35), West Virginia (29)

Bad Losses: None

Road/Neutral Wins: UConn (in Maui), Georgetown (in Maui), Tulsa, Wichita State (at Intrust Bank Arena), Texas Tech, Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU

Head-to-Head: 3-2

TCU (17-7, 6-5) RPI 48, KenPom 40

Quality Wins: Illinois State (34), Iowa State (46)

Bad Losses: None

Road/Neutral Wins: UNLV, Washington (in Las Vegas), Texas, Kansas State

Head-to-Head: 3-2

Texas Tech (16-8, 4-7) RPI 83, KenPom 43

Quality Wins: West Virginia (29), TCU (48)

Bad Losses: Oklahoma (138), Texas (132)

Road/Neutral Wins: Utah State (in Cancun), Richmond

Head-to-Head: 2-4

You’ll note a serious tumble in the RPI means the Wildcats no longer count as a quality win, which is unfortunate for all the other Big 12 bubble teams. That 1-4 record against everyone else is also rather disturbing, although K-State could still bring it back to .500 with games against OSU, TCU and Texas Tech remaining.

The Cyclones’ low RPI is rather puzzling to me, although it’s worth noting they’ve already played both OU and Texas twice. Iowa State gets a nice edge from its impressive record against the fellow bubble teams and a strong list of road/neutral wins.

Only the Cowboys boast a better noncon resume, and they’ve got a chance to get above .500 in conference play after an 0-6 start if they can beat OU in Gallagher-Iba and steal a win at Bramlage. Speaking of stealing wins, TCU probably needs to get at least one of its next three, at Iowa State, at Kansas, then West Virginia in Fort Worth.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs: The margin for error is virtually gone at this point. To get to 10 wins and truly feel comfortable about a bid heading into Kansas City, the ‘Cats would probably need to win out. Four could easily be enough, although a loss at Texas or Oklahoma would be a significant black mark.

Thankfully, Kansas State doesn’t have any games remaining against the four teams above .500 in Big 12 play. There are no matchups left where the ‘Cats can’t come out on top, but at the same time this has never felt like a team capable of winning five straight in this conference, regardless of opponent.

Still, the schedule could hardly be any better, especially without changing the breakdown of three road trips and two home games. The weakest teams (OU, Texas and TCU) are on the road, while the strongest teams (Oklahoma State and Texas Tech) come to Bramlage.

I’d feel a lot better if K-State can start a winning streak by beating Texas and OSU, then take some confidence into Norman and Fort Worth. The ‘Cats absolutely must knock off the Red Raiders on Senior Night, then we’ll see what happens.

it’s very possible at this point a tournament bid would require another big win, so it’s certainly beneficial K-State might end up playing a top 15 team in the Big 12 quarterfinals. A win or go to the NIT situation isn’t too hard to imagine for the ‘Cats at the Sprint Center. Let’s hope they can avoid it.