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(Too Early) Tournament Thursday

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Would Kansas State be in the tourney if the season ended today? Absolutely not. Luckily, the ‘Cats still have plenty of opportunities to change that answer.

Kansas State v Cincinnati
Mr. Wade will be a big part of any January or February surge for Kansas State.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The reality is it’s still too soon to try and predict whether this Kansas State team will make the NCAA tourney with any sort of confidence, especially since we don’t know what kind of an effect losing Kamau Stokes will have long-term or even how long he’ll actually be out (although it doesn’t look good). I think we can safely say unless some weird things happen, the ‘Cats won’t be competing for a Big 12 title and won’t fall below an NIT bid unless some weird things happen, but that’s about it.

Still, this seems like a worthwhile exercise right now to take a closer look at that awful nonconference schedule and, more importantly, determine what it will take to reach the Big Dance. Once again, this conference has the quality to provide all sorts of chances at success or failure.

There is some significant talent on this roster, even when Barry Brown isn’t playing out of his mind. For the first time in a little while, K-State has some seriously good shooters, including at the free throw line.

A lack of interior quality, rebounding woes, and a shortage of perimeter depth will be serious concerns going forward into the grind of conference play. On the plus side, this team has some experienced leadership that will hopefully be able to guide it past any significant obstacles within their control.

I’d really like to see the defense (currently 103rd in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings) get better, and I think this team has the requisite athletic ability if not the size to make it happen. Bruce Weber has never had a team finish worse than 68th in KenPom’s defensive ratings, and only one hasn’t been in the top 35, so hopefully he can get it corrected. If not, this season could get ugly and the calls to fire Bruce will get deservedly louder.

Current status: Out

So much of the season remains and Kansas State will have so many chances to improve its resume this hardly matters, but it’s still worth briefly mentioning. All you really need to know is only 4 of 58 brackets in The Bracket Project gave the ‘Cats a spot. Shoutout to Anthony’s Blog, DI Bracketology, Shelby’s Bracket W.A.G. and Charlie Power Index for seeing something in this team despite unconvincing results.

Nonconference play

This might be the section where I spend the most time this week, because we need to understand why K-State’s nonconference schedule is ranked 334th out of 351 Division I teams and what that means. Yes, it will improve a little when the Georgia visits Bramlage later this month, but it will still be embarrassingly awful.

Let’s start with looking at records, KenPom ratings, and yes, RPIs (only because the committee still thinks this is useful) of the teams the ‘Cats have played. I’ll even include the scores of the games as a reminder this season.

83-45 vs. American (3-12) RPI 304 KenPom 316
72-51 vs. UMKC (5-12) RPI 263 KenPom 279
71-49 vs. UC Irvine (6-12) RPI 168 KenPom 189
80-58 vs. Northern Arizona (3-14) RPI 288 KenPom 334
90-92 (N) vs. Arizona State (13-2) RPI 13 KenPom 17
67-59 (N)vs. George Washington (8-9) 184 RPI KenPom 201
77-68 vs. Oral Roberts (7-11) RPI 171 KenPom 188
84-79 at Vanderbilt (6-10) RPI 158 KenPom 89
86-49 vs. South Carolina Upstate (5-13) RPI 332 KenPom 330
54-61 vs. Tulsa (10-6) RPI 107 KenPom 125
89-71 vs. Southeast Missouri State (7-10) RPI 246 KenPom 263
68-65 at Washington State (8-7) RPI 133 KenPom 161

At some point in the near future, possibly as soon as after Washington State’s game vs. Stanford tonight, Kansas State will no longer have a nonconference win against a team with a winning record. Five RPI 200+ wins aren’t going to move the needle much if K-State lands on the bubble, and I guess the best win is on the road (but not on campus) against maybe the Pac-12’s worst team. Yikes.

Oral Roberts is off to an encouraging 3-0 start in Summit League play and Tulsa did the same in the American before falling at Memphis, but everyone else seems to be trending in the wrong direction. That includes Arizona State, who opened Pac-12 play with losses at Arizona (understandable) and Colorado (less so) before ending the road trip with a win at Utah.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say this could end up as the second-worst nonconference resume in the Weber era, ahead of only the 2014-15 season that saw six losses, including one at home to Texas Southern. If Kansas State’s NCAA bid comes down to wins outside the Big 12, it’s probably not going to happen.

Last week: Kansas State essentially met expectations, losing on the road to a very good Texas Tech team and then holding off Oklahoma State at home. Sure, the margin of defeat in Lubbock was a little disturbing, but on the other hand it was encouraging to see the ‘Cats bounce back despite the injury to Stokes. Let’s call it a wash.

This week: Finally, we get to see K-State play the type of game that will decide whether it goes to the NCAAs or the NIT in March. No, I’m not talking about the one Saturday in Lawrence. Any win at Allen Fieldhouse is always a huge unexpected bonus, although the Jayhawks have certainly looked more vulnerable there than usual.

The more interesting test will be next Tuesday against Oklahoma in Bramlage. Defending homecourt is vital to a respectable league record, so Kansas State needs to find a way to slow down Trae Young and the Sooners to start moving up towards bubble status.

Big 12 bubble competition: No reason to worry too much about this right now, but at the moment it looks like West Virginia, Kansas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma are comfortably in, while the outlook appears grim for Oklahoma State and Iowa State. That leaves us with TCU, Texas and Baylor, three teams with plenty of talent who have had trouble finding consistency or getting over the hump for that signature win so far in league play. The Horned Frogs, obviously, have an edge with the best nonconference resume.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs: Again, it’s a little tough to predict this far out because of all the variables, but we can at least take an educated guess. First of all, avoiding a loss to a mediocre Georgia team in the Big 12/SEC challenge will be critical, since that should be the easiest game left on the schedule aside from Iowa State’s trip to Manhattan.

I think we can safely assume 9-9 (20-11 overall with a Georgia win) gets a bid provided Kansas State avoids a bad loss in the Big 12 tourney. It starts with protecting the Octagon of Doom, which won’t be easy with Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas and Texas Tech all coming to visit before Valentine’s Day. Three wins out of four would be a solid goal.

Do that and stealing just one of the next four road games against Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia and Texas might feel like a success given Weber’s issues away from home in Big 12 play, and it would keep Kansas State at .500. From there, the path clears up quite a bit with a winnable road game at Oklahoma State plus Iowa State, Texas and Baylor to finish out the home schedule without seeing any of the top dogs.

Win all four of those and suddenly getting to 10 wins seems achievable, or at least it could erase some misery caused by this upcoming stretch. I didn’t even mention the last two road games at TCU and Oklahoma, which will be very difficult but certainly not impossible if the team comes together and things fall right.

The important takeaway here is that unless Kansas State doesn’t win another Big 12 game or loses to Georgia there’s no reason to panic before the end of January, given how the schedule finishes. Putting a Bruce Weber team in a must-win situation is never a good idea, though, so let’s hope the ‘Cats can find a way to tread water and stay around .500 before getting hot in February.