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K-State Tips off Tonight in the Paradise Jam

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Bruce’s guys will be content with nothing less than a championship.

NCAA Basketball: Kennesaw State at Kansas State
Maybe tournament lights will ignite Mike McGuirl again.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week No. 12/11 Kansas State Wildcats boarded a jet for the balmy U.S. Virgin Islands, where they will begin play in the Paradise Jam tournament against Ohio Valley Conference member Eastern Kentucky (2-1) at 6:30 CT this evening. You can see the tournament bracket here. Though the field perhaps lost a bit of luster when Missouri’s Jontay Porter suffered an unfortunate season-ending knee injury before the real games began, the tournament still provides important opportunities for K-State.

Every game affords the ‘Cats a new chance to find the offensive rhythm that has been almost entirely lacking so far this season. The team will have a valuable opportunity to play in a venue other than Bramlage without having to enter anyone’s home territory to do it, and they will be playing as the hunted—an unfamiliar role for K-State. Are they up to the task?

K-State is the only team in the bracket currently ranked in the Top-25. But if the ‘Cats misstep, plenty of teams in the field have the firepower to thwart Barry, Kamau and Dean’s stated mission to bring home a trophy for the time since the 2011 Diamond Head Classic in Hawai'i. Most of the field is far better than anyone K-State has played thus far (the worst team, Kennesaw State, KenPom 329, is a team K-State has already played) and the field overall is certainly superior to the parade of horribles the Wildcats lined up against in last year’s non-conference season. Unfortunately, Bruce’s guys can’t play more than one team inside the top-100 in KenPom rankings. And that chance won’t come until the tournament’s last day.

Eastern Kentucky, under the leadership of first-year coach A.W. Hamilton, is 2-1 on the year, with a lop-sided 105-77 loss to Marshall, a narrow win over Chattanooga, 81-78, and a 107-52 thrashing of Midway, an NAIA club, on their resume. All of that adds up to an unsightly KenPom rating of 271. The Colonels do have some talent, though. In the road win at Chattanooga, 6’9 senior Nick Mayo scored 40 points.

The winner of the K-State/Eastern Kentucky game will play the winner of the Northern Iowa/Penn game. Either opponent will present a unique challenge.

Northern Iowa is best known in these parts for derailing top overall seed KU’s NCAA title aspirations in the second round in 2010, making “Farokhmanesh” forever a dirty word in Lawrence. With Wichita State and Creighton off to new leagues, the Panthers are one of the top remaining programs in the Missouri Valley Conference. They have been in the NCAA Tournament field seven times since 2004 and are rated 139 by KenPom.

The Penn Quakers are 3-0, with a 72-71 win over George Mason, a 92-76 win over Rice, and a 91-61 win over LaFayette. They are usually known for sound team offense and stellar outside shooting, though the year is young to judge this team’s strengths. The Quakers won the Ivy League tournament in 2018 to qualify for the NCAA field. KenPom rates them 129, which suggests their first-round matchup with Northern Iowa should be interesting.

If the ‘Cats make it through their side of the bracket, a championship game would most likely feature Missouri (KenPom 74), Oregon State (KenPom 88) or Old Dominion (KenPom 94). That’s right; I’m writing off previous K-State foe Kennesaw State before the first game tips. For this tournament experience to help K-State’s profile at all—or, more accurately, to do the least damage to their profile—the Wildcats must win their side of the bracket and line up against one of these teams for the title.

Goals for success:

1. Run consistent half-court offense and finish with points. Coach Weber said he has let the team freewheel it on offense so far this year. The experiment has not returned good results, and it may be time to run more set plays.

2. Show that the defense can lock down more talented teams than Kennesaw State and Denver. The defense has looked good. But the quality of competition should be taken into account, as should the comforts of playing both games at home.

3. Get production from players other than the Big 3. Wade and Brown have done most of the heavy lifting so far, with Xavier Sneed chipping in Monday night. The team will have to get more out of Stokes, Cartier Diarra and others to reach those goals the seniors set, starting with a tournament win in the Virgin Islands.

As Jon noted in the Slate, you can’t watch unless you subscribe to FloHoops.com. For those of us who are country dwellers with lousy ISPs (HughesNet: you stink!), that’s not an option. Ben Boyle had better tune up the pipes for all the K-State fans who will be tuning in.