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Tournament Thursday: No need to panic (yet)

Kansas State’s winning streak may be over, but the NCAA tourney hopes of these Wildcats are still pretty healthy.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Kansas State Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There was much gnashing of teeth and angry typing all over the Internet in Wildcatland Monday night, after Kansas State never really looked like it had a chance against KU at Bramlage. That wasn’t the way this night was supposed to go, not when the ‘Cats were riding high on a four-game win streak and playing in front of a loud sellout crowd.

Alas, the Jayhawks did what they so often do at the Sunflower Showdown, even if it wasn’t all that close to one of their best performances. Immediately following the game, those Kansas State fans bemoaning this team as “bubble at best” and another mediocre Bruce Weber team could be forgiven.

But let’s not despair just yet. After all, the ‘Cats are still one game above .500 in conference play with solid wins against OU and TCU, and they haven’t lost a game to any Big 12 teams not currently ranked among the top 15 teams in the country.

The key now will be bouncing back and avoiding the mistakes of the past. Each of the last two years, a loss to Kansas in Manhattan started a three-game losing streak. Part of that is tough schedules, and once again that hardly looks favorable for K-State as you’ll see below.

Someone needs to step up soon and help Dean Wade, whether it’s Kam Stokes in a triumphant return, Barry Brown once again becoming Superman, Cartier Diarra showing defenses haven’t figured him out just yet, Xavier Sneed breaking out of a somewhat distressing shooting slump, or someone else surprising all of us. Great teams respond positively to setbacks, so it’s time for the experience and leadership we’ve heard about from this group to shine through.

Current Status: Right Side of the Bubble

Despite the loss to Kansas, K-State’s bubble status improved from the last time we checked and once again the ‘Cats are looking as good as they have all season. That hardly means they’d be guaranteed a spot if Selection Sunday was tomorrow, but it would be far more likely to happen than not.

Don’t take my word for it, though, let’s ask the guys who have been doing this for a while, starting with our own Razdad. As a reminder, he 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: My projections have Kansas State Wildcats as a 9 seed this week, and using the S-Curve KSU would face Rhode Island in the 1st Round. Kansas is the top #2 seed in the land, Texas Tech is close behind as a 3 seed. Oklahoma and West Virginia are 4 seeds, while TCU would be seeded 8th and the Longhorns would be a 9 seed. Baylor is currently on the wrong side of the bubble as they are in the group of next four out.

Along with the Wildcats and Texas as 9 seeds are Butler and Arkansas. The six schools currently seeded below K-State in my projections are USC, Houston. A&M, SMU, Marquette, and Alabama and there are four more P5 schools that are seeded 12th.

The Bracket Project lists the ‘Cats as a 10 seed, and they’re tournament bound in 97 of 106 brackets, which seems pretty good. Joe Lunardi updated this morning to list K-State as a 10 seed against Rhode Island, which would be a matchup that has never happened before although we all remember what happened the last time the Rams played a team from Kansas in the tourney.

SI’s Michael Beller last updated on Tuesday and likes K-State as a 10 seed vs. Miami, while Jerry Palm of CBS put the ‘Cats in his First Four against Virginia Tech. Ryan Fagan of The Sporting News gave Kansas State a 9 seed before the Kansas loss and SB Nation bracketologist Chris Dobbertean decided to do some trolling and gave the ‘Cats an 11 seed with a tasty matchup against Wichita State.

Nonconference play

The nonconference schedule is finally complete, and after the win at Georgia KenPom ranks it as the 322nd toughest out of 351. Not great. By the way, he ranks K-State as 41st overall and the ‘Cats are currently an unimpressive 67th in the RealTime RPI. Here’s a look at everyone else on K-State’s noncon schedule.

Once again, the * means that team is in last or second-to-last in its conference, and + means an improvement from the previous week, while - means a drop in the rankings.

83-45 vs. American* (5-17) RPI 323 (-2) KenPom 331 (-9)
72-51 vs. UMKC* (6-17) RPI 258 (-3) KenPom 294 (-16)
71-49 vs. UC Irvine (10-14) RPI 159 (+21) KenPom 161 (+1)
80-58 vs. Northern Arizona* (4-18) RPI 279 (+32) KenPom 321 (+4)
90-92 (N) vs. Arizona State (16-5) RPI 39 (-8) KenPom 27 (-2)
67-59 (N)vs. George Washington* (9-13) RPI 181 (+15) RPI KenPom 221 (-2)
77-68 vs. Oral Roberts (9-15) RPI 216 (-2) KenPom 206 (+0)
84-79 at Vanderbilt* (8-14) RPI 126 (+11) KenPom 87 (+15)
86-49 vs. South Carolina Upstate* (6-19) RPI 339 (-3) KenPom 336 (+3)
54-61 vs. Tulsa (11-10) RPI 120 (+6) KenPom 134 (+0)
89-71 vs. Southeast Missouri State (10-13) RPI 231 (+4) KenPom 247 (-9)
68-65 at Washington State* (9-12) RPI 166 (-10) KenPom 166 (-17)
56-51 vs. Georgia (13-8) RPI 55 KenPom 58

The obvious bright spot here was the two SEC teams, thanks to Georgia’s win over Florida and Vandy should have beaten Kentucky but did at least hold on to take down TCU. Regrettably, UGA and Vandy play each other next Wednesday, but if the Commodores could go on the road and take down No. 11 Auburn on Saturday that would be quite helpful.

Also, Northern Arizona snapped its 7-game losing streak with a win at Montana State to jump 32 spots in the RPI, so kudos to them, I guess. Sadly, no one else did all that well. Keep an eye on Arizona State tonight at Washington to see if the Sun Devils got back on track with a huge second half against Colorado over the weekend and a contract extension for coach Bobby Hurley.

Last Week

Kansas State nearly laid an egg at home against Georgia, only to see Dean Wade and Cartier Diarra take over late against a team accustomed to folding down the stretch. It’s kind of nice to see that from other teams and not the ‘Cats, who have really done pretty well in tight games this season, despite disappointing final possessions and results against Arizona State and Kansas.

Speaking of KU, Monday’s game felt like a pretty big letdown, which is saying something about this K-State team. The fact that many, even outside of Manhattan, thought the ‘Cats would win is great, although I’d imagine few of those who tuned in would make that prediction again after a listless performance from pretty much everyone except Wade, who continues to play lights-out.

This week

Kansas State begins its first two-game road trip of the Big 12 schedule on Saturday at West Virginia, so this seems like a good time to remind everyone the ‘Cats went 2-0 on their last extended road trip (Washington St. and Iowa St.) and Bruce Weber is actually a very respectable 6-7 on the road in the Big 12 over the last two seasons, which ranks third in the conference. Plus, the Mountaineers have lost 5 of their last 6 following a 93-77 drubbing at Iowa State.

That being said, Morgantown is not a friendly place to play and K-State hasn’t won there since Weber escaped with a one-point win his first year in purple. Bob Huggins just might have his team playing angry, the ‘Cats must bring the energy or risk getting run off the floor like Texas did not long ago. Still, I’m going to make a bold prediction: Kansas State will shoot a lot of free throws and if they can make 80% or better, they win this game.

The ‘Cats are 4-0 on the road this year against teams not ranked in the top 10, which bodes well against WVU and especially the game at Texas next Wednesday. What doesn’t bode well for that game is the Longhorns’ four-game home win streak including wins over TCU and Texas Tech, as well as a lengthy, athletic lineup led by Mo Bamba, who leads the Big 12 with 4.5 blocks and nearly 11 rebounds per game.

Still, Texas is maybe the league’s worst offensive team, so if Kansas State can find a way to score this is a very winnable game. That probably means hitting some jump shots, so hopefully Stokes’ return will help and the other guys will find their legs or fix whatever has been ailing them these last two games.

Big 12 bubble teams

We’ve entered February and hit the halfway point of the conference slate, so it’s time to take a closer look at K-State’s friendly conference rivals also vying for a spot. Keep in mind this is not like other “Bubble Watch” features, where teams only get ‘lock’ status if they could essentially lose out and still make the tourney. I’m a little more lenient, so Kansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU are all locks, while Iowa State is clearly on the outside looking in until they win a Big 12 road game.

Remember, quality wins are against RPI top 50 teams, bad losses are against teams outside the top 100, and head-to-head means against the other Big 12 teams listed.

Kansas State (16-6, 5-4) RPI 67, KenPom 41

Quality Wins: vs. Oklahoma (26), vs. TCU (21)

Bad Losses: vs. Tulsa (120)

Road/Neutral Wins: George Washington (in Las Vegas), Vanderbilt, Washington State (in Spokane), Iowa State, Baylor

Head-to-Head: 2-0

Texas (14-8, 4-5) RPI 50, KenPom 35

Quality Wins: at Alabama (41), vs. Butler (25), vs. TCU (21), vs. Texas Tech (17)

Bad Losses: at Oklahoma State (114)

Road/Neutral Wins: Butler (in Portland), VCU, Alabama, Iowa State

Head-to-Head: 0-2

Oklahoma State (13-9, 3-6) RPI 114, KenPom 73

Quality Wins: vs. Florida State (44), vs. Texas (50), vs. Oklahoma (11)

Bad Losses: None

Road/Neutral Wins: Pittsburgh (in NYC), Florida State (in Sunrise, Fla.)

Head-to-Head: 1-2

Baylor (12-10, 2-7) RPI 91, KenPom 49

Quality Wins: vs. Creighton (27), vs. Texas (50)

Bad Losses: None

Road/Neutral Wins: Creighton (in KC), Wisconsin (in KC)

Head-to-Head: 2-1

It’s easy to see from the numbers how badly Kansas State and Oklahoma State are hurt by two of the Big 12’s worst three nonconference schedules, with the ‘Cats dead last and Texas Tech 9th. Baylor didn’t play a great schedule either, but Texas sure did and it shows.

The Longhorns’ noncon wins put them in the best shape here, despite a somewhat troubling 0-2 head-to-head record. If Texas holds serve at home against Oklahoma and Kansas State, they will move into lock status for next week.

Oklahoma State badly needs a road win and will get its chance in the next two weekends at Kansas and at TCU. Baylor just needs any kind of win after losing 6 of 7, so it’s a good thing the Bears host Iowa State Saturday and go to Stillwater next Tuesday.

It’s worth highlighting Kansas State has the best record, the most (not necessarily the best) road/neutral wins and the best head-to-head record, plus arguably the easiest remaining schedule. All of that helps offset a miserable noncon schedule and by far the worst loss of the bunch.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs

Last week’s results kept the ‘Cats very much on track, and it’s important to remember should things go wrong these next two games that they’ve got some margin for error thanks to their wins thus far and the remaining schedule. Two more road losses would, however, make defending the Octagon against Texas Tech much more critical.

Although finishing 4-0 at might be enough on its own with a weak bubble, K-State would do well to add a road win or two. Fortunately, that seems very possible with games against Oklahoma State, Texas, slumping West Virginia and even an up-and-down TCU team remaining, not to mention the OU squad KSU thrashed in Manhattan.

All is well in Wildcat bubbleland for now, so this would be a great time to turn on the afterburners and speed into the higher echelons of the bracket. Higher seeds are there for the taking if Kansas State can figure out how to incorporate Kamau Stokes back into the lineup while still maximizing the talent of every other player. That’s not going to be an easy task, and Bruce is certainly not the best man for the job, but here’s hoping he finds a way.

As a fun comparison if you want to feel better about K-State’s position, here’s a look at Tournament Thursday from a year ago tomorrow, headlined “Heading for Disaster.” I was in a dark place after a home loss to TCU. Fortunately, my writing obviously inspired Kansas State to pick up probably the best road win of Bruce Weber’s tenure, a 56-54 triumph at No. 2 Baylor.