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Tournament Thursday: Returning to the field

Two valuable wins pushed K-State into most brackets — just barely.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Christian at Kansas State
I wouldn’t be mad if Kansas State wore those jerseys and those shoes every game the rest of the way.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

So what do we make of this Kansas State team? Are they the best team in the Big 12 outside of Lawrence right now? They’re the only other team in the Big 12 that has won more than one game in a row, so that’s something. The ‘Cats also have the league’s top two scorers not named Trae Young in conference play and haven’t trailed since early in the rout of Oklahoma.

What once seemed impossible, then became either something we whispered to each other or boldly proclaimed as a hot take, is now indisputably true. Kansas State is a better team without Kamau Stokes. It still doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but here we are, and it could present an interesting challenge for Bruce should Stokes really return soon-ish as expected.

The ‘Cats are playing faster and taking care of the ball with dynamic freshman Cartier Diarra or Brown running the show, taking smart shots, making free throws and seem to be playing better team defense most of the time. They’ve got a shutdown defender who doubles as a go-to guy when the shot clock is running down in Brown and a matchup nightmare for virtually everyone in a suddenly confident Wade. Makol Mawien is even starting to consistently look like a respectable Big 12 center.

All of it adds up to a team capable of securing not only a bid, but also a high seed come Selection Sunday. The top three regular season finishers in the Big 12 have earned no worse than a 5 seed in each of the last three years, and I see no reason why that would change this March.

This is not to say, of course, there aren’t chinks in the armor, which could be said about any team in this conference. K-State still can’t rebound, the lack of a physical presence inside remains an issue even with Mawien’s improvement, and of course there’s that glaring lack of depth. If you exclude Diarra’s two games as the sixth man, the main four Wildcats – Brown, Wade, Diarra and Xavier Sneed – are all averaging at least 33 minutes per game with Wade and Brown close to 38 minutes during this winning streak. That seems like a precarious situation.

But it’s impossible to ignore Kansas State is peaking right when the schedule and Kam’s injury suggested the ‘Cats could go in the opposite direction. If they keep this up a couple more weeks, it might not even matter if their quality of play deteriorates slightly against a weaker slate in February.

Current Status: On the Bubble

Time to start taking a serious look at where Kansas State stands, according to guys with Bracketology degrees. Or something. We’ll start with a new contributor to this section, our own commenter “Razdad,” who makes his bracket projections based on a combination of his own rankings and those from 10 different sites including SB Nation, CBS Sports, Bracketville, College Sports Madness, KenPom and ESPN BPI.

Razdad: Using my projections the Wildcats would be a 10 seed this week after extending their winning streak to three games, and using the S-Curve would face Rhode Island in the 1st Round. West Virginia and Kansas lead the Big 12 as 2 seeds, Oklahoma is still a 3 seed, and Texas Tech is a 4 while TCU would be seeded 6th and the Longhorns would be a 9 seed.

Along with the Wildcats at the 10th seed are Arkansas, SMU, and Missouri while USC, Notre Dame, Western Kentucky, and Houston are 11 seeds and Alabama, Providence and Maryland are barely in the field as at-large 12 seeds. Joining Baylor, the second team out, on the wrong side of the bubble is this Saturday’s opponent, Georgia, along with Washington and Syracuse. Boise State, Virginia Tech, Middle Tennessee, and UCLA are the next 4 out.

The Bracket Project now lists Kansas State as an 11 seed and a tournament participant in 54 of 91 brackets, a vast improvement but still fewer brackets than every other team in the field aside from Syracuse (50). Joe Lunardi updated his projections this morning and lists K-State as a 12-seed in the First Four against SMU, with the winner set to play Kentucky.

SI’s Michael Beller named Kansas State as his last team in even before the ‘Cats beat Baylor Monday night, and today he highlighted their rise while moving them up to a 10 seed with a really fun first-round matchup against Wichita State. Jerry Palm of CBS also put K-State in the First Four against Washington prior to the win at Baylor. Let’s also give The Washington Post’s Patrick Stevens a shout-out for giving K-State a 9 seed in his Tuesday bracket, although that potential second-round matchup with Virginia is my worst nightmare.

Nonconference play

Alas, things aren’t getting much better here, and Georgia looks less and less like a potential quality win as the SEC season progresses. The Bulldogs have now lost four of five and sit just one game ahead of last-place Vanderbilt and....Texas A&M? Weird.

Anyway, here are the results and some rankings of what we’ve seen so far, with how those rankings compare to a week ago in parenthesis. Remember + is good and - is bad. I put an * next to teams that are currently dead last or second-to-last in their conference just to show how terrible most (7 of 12!) of these teams are.

83-45 vs. American* (5-13) RPI 321 (-36) KenPom 322 (-17)
72-51 vs. UMKC* (6-16) RPI 255 (+1) KenPom 278 (+7)
71-49 vs. UC Irvine (9-14) RPI 180 (-1) KenPom 162 (+19)
80-58 vs. Northern Arizona* (3-15) RPI 311 (-3) KenPom 325 (+8)
90-92 (N) vs. Arizona State (15-4) RPI 31 (-4) KenPom 25 (+2)
67-59 (N)vs. George Washington* (9-11) RPI 181 (+15) RPI KenPom 219 (-15)
77-68 vs. Oral Roberts (8-15) RPI 214 (-30) KenPom 206 (-10)
84-79 at Vanderbilt* (7-13) RPI 137 (+17) KenPom 102 (+5)
86-49 vs. South Carolina Upstate* (6-17) RPI 336 (+4) KenPom 339 (-3)
54-61 vs. Tulsa (11-9) RPI 126 (-19) KenPom 134 (-5)
89-71 vs. Southeast Missouri State (10-11) RPI 235 (+30) KenPom 238 (+29)
68-65 at Washington State* (9-10) RPI 156 (-17) KenPom 149 (-1)

Well, Tulsa ended its losing streak with a 13-point win over Memphis, Arizona State picked up a road win at California, and Southeast Missouri State won back-to-back games against SIUE and Eastern Illinois by the identical score of 86-74. So at least you can’t say there aren’t any positives, right?

Sadly, two more losses by Washington State means Kansas State no longer has a win against a team with even a .500 record, although that should change Saturday against 12-7 Georgia. Maybe Vandy will shock us all and beat TCU, then follow it up with a win at Kentucky. That would be cool.

Last Week

Kansas State turned an upset of Oklahoma into a winning streak by knocking off TCU at Bramlage, a win that we really shouldn’t take for granted with the potential of the Horned Frogs. Plus, it gave KSU another key home win and was a breakout game of sorts for Mawien, as he nearly matched Dean Wade’s 20 points with a season-high 18 of his own.

Perhaps more importantly, the ‘Cats went to Waco and came away victorious for a second straight year, largely dominating the Bears in a 90-83 win. Baylor’s length and athleticism did some damage, but K-State’s newfound offensive efficiency led by another incredible game for Brown and Wade proved to be more than enough.

This week

We always hear the Big 12 doesn’t get any easier, and while that’s true, the same can’t be said for the SEC, no matter what the RPI says. I know Iowa State is still coming to Bramlage in February, but Georgia might honestly be the least challenging game left on the schedule.

Sorry, Bulldogs, but the memories of those nice wins over Saint Mary’s on a neutral court and at Marquette are fading fast. Georgia’s offense outside of Yante Maten is pretty much terrible.

Unfortunately, that becomes something of a trap game because K-State follows it with probably its toughest two-game stretch of the year, starting with an opportunity to capture a share of first place against Kansas in Bramlage. Obviously, we’ve all seen the Jayhawks are beatable, but Bill Self always seems to get his team up for these kinds of games. It will take a huge effort from everyone on the floor to earn this win, and some help from the fans would be much appreciated.

Big 12 bubble teams

Next week is when we’ll really start breaking down resumes, but right now almost everyone appears to be sort of falling towards the middle, so we’ve got at least three teams squarely on the bubble. Kansas, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma are all safely in for the moment, but TCU could start getting into trouble if it were to lose at Vanderbilt or Oklahoma State in the next seven days.

That leaves us with Texas and Baylor joining the ‘Cats, and the Bears are clearly in the most uncomfortable position. Fortunately for them, or maybe not, they’ve also got arguably the best opportunity of anyone for a marquee win this weekend with a road game at Florida, who just lost to the Fighting Franks in Gainesville.

If Baylor loses that game and falls at Oklahoma, it will be a pretty significant uphill climb to get back into the field of 68. Still, Scott Drew teams have been known to hit their stride in the second half of the Big 12 season, so let’s not count them out yet.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs

The formula is still pretty much the same, but the numbers are getting smaller. Provided Kansas State takes care of business against Georgia, it should have a bit of breathing room.

Winning against Kansas would be extremely helpful, but really getting either that one or the home game Feb. 10 against Texas Tech would put the Wildcats in a great spot. Stealing a road win at West Virginia or at Texas would be a nice added bonus.

Win just one of those four games and Kansas State would only need to hold serve at home against Iowa State, Texas and Baylor to reach .500. It seems to me 10-8 should be the absolute minimum expectation at this point, and road games at OSU and TCU don’t look nearly as difficult as they once did.

The ‘Cats currently lead the Big 12 in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage in conference games only by a fairly wide margin, so anyone who has been a K-State supporter for an extended period of time is acutely aware a regression to the mean is probably coming. Hopefully that won’t happen at the wrong times and an improving defense can mitigate the effects.