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Tournament Thursday: On the right track

Holding serve at home against the middle of the Big 12 should be enough to clinch an NCAA tournament berth at this point.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

As Kansas State continues to struggle mightily against the Big 12’s top 20 teams and thrive against everyone else, I’d like to throw out a new theory. It’s worth noting first that these results clearly show more than just, well, K-State’s not good enough to compete with the top teams, because the gap between the top of the league and the middle is not nearly as big as the ‘Cats are making it seem.

So, what’s going on? Well, given the fact in every win except Texas, Kansas State quickly opens up a big lead, one has to wonder if it’s just a confidence or expectations issue. Perhaps they’re seeing slightly weaker opponents and figuring they can go out and win, so they’re playing more relaxed. But against the elite teams, maybe a belief that they need to play perfectly to win ends up producing bad starts and poor shooting.

As evidence, consider K-State fell behind 18-9 vs. West Virginia, 24-6 at Texas Tech, and even 10-2 in the one-point loss at Kansas. The trend continued as the ‘Cats dug a 15-4 hole early against the Jayhawks in Manhattan. Losses at West Virginia and to Texas Tech in Bramlage featured better starts scoring-wise, but I would argue that was more the Mountaineers and Red Raiders playing below-average than the Wildcats actually playing their best basketball.

I don’t know. It’s just a theory, and one obvious flaw is that Oklahoma looked like an elite team when K-State blew the then-No. 4 Sooners out of the water. But maybe the ‘Cats saw the weaknesses they went on to exploit on tape and had reason to bring some extra confidence into that game.

I’m also not entirely sure how this issue could be solved, especially at this point in the season when past results are only going to reinforce the mentality that K-State needs a spectacular performance to beat a top 20 opponent. That’s not entirely wrong, but the trick for any coaching staff is to put their players in the right mindset to be able to accept a few mistakes and prevent putting too much pressure on themselves.

Let’s just hope Kansas State can continue its hot starts the rest of the regular season, then maybe by the time the Big 12 tournament rolls around the ‘Cats will be ready to take it to someone above them in the standings. We can always dream.

Current status: Right side of the bubble

Another loss to the Big 12 leaders plus another road win against a team below Kansas State in the standings hardly tells us anything we didn’t know about the Wildcats. The road aspect might improve K-State’s resume a bit, if there’s any movement at all.

But let’s ask the experts, starting with our own Razdad. Remember, 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: I have Kansas State as an 11 seed, matched up against Creighton in the first round, using the S-Curve. Kansas is the Big 12’s highest seeded team as a 2 seed and Texas Tech is close behind as a 3 seed, West Virginia is a 4 seed, while Oklahoma would be seeded 5th.

TCU would be an 8 seed, Texas is seeded 10th, and Baylor is now a 12 seed. Joining the Wildcats as an 11 seed are Middle Tennessee, New Mexico State, and UCLA.

The Bracket Project lists K-State as an 11-seed, the second-to-last at-large to make the field, and in 73 of 105 brackets. Of course, it’s worth noting most of those projections don’t include Wednesday’s win.

Joe Lunardi’s Thursday bracketology does, and he’s moved the ‘Cats up to a 10 seed, putting them in my nightmare matchup against my alma mater, Missouri. SI’s Michael Beller also updated his bracket today to put Kansas State among the last four in, which seems a little harsh. That would mean a First Four game against UCLA.

Jerry Palm of CBS hasn’t updated since Sunday, when he put K-State in a First Four matchup against USC. SB Nation’s Chris Dobbertean updated on Tuesday and actually had Kansas State as his second team out. I thought we were friends, Chris.

Nonconference play

Time to check in on the nonconference schedule, which now ranks 329th out of 351 teams, according to KenPom. That’s the worst in the Big 12 by 20 spots, according to KenPom. Remember, 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* (6-20) RPI 329 (-5) KenPom 328 (+2)
72-51 vs. UMKC* (8-19) RPI 251 (+18) KenPom 288 (+21)
71-49 vs. UC Irvine (13-14) RPI 132 (+15) KenPom 141 (+8)
80-58 vs. Northern Arizona* (4-21) RPI 300 (+0) KenPom 330 (-1)
90-92 (N) vs. Arizona State (19-6) RPI 24 (+15) KenPom 31 (-2)
67-59 (N)vs. George Washington* (11-15) RPI 188 (+9) RPI KenPom 220 (+11)
77-68 vs. Oral Roberts* (10-19) RPI 235 (-4) KenPom 237 (-4)
84-79 at Vanderbilt* (10-16) RPI 113 (+5) KenPom 89 (-3)
86-49 vs. South Carolina Upstate* (7-21) RPI 341 (+2) KenPom 338 (-1)
54-61 vs. Tulsa (14-10) RPI 93 (+6) KenPom 119 (+0)
89-71 vs. Southeast Missouri State (12-15) RPI 230 (+16) KenPom 247 (+12)
68-65 at Washington State* (9-15) RPI 185 (-19) KenPom 188 (-21)
56-51 vs. Georgia (14-11) RPI 69 (+3) KenPom 79 (+0)

This was actually a pretty good week for K-State’s opponents, relatively speaking. UMKC went 2-0, Arizona State might be back on track just in time for a big game at Oregon tonight, and UC Irvine extended its win streak to five games to move to a half game out of first in the Big West. Even SEMO picked up a couple wins in the OVC.

Georgia won at Florida, which is cool but feels like too little too late for its tournament chances. Washington State, sadly, keeps floundering and of course teams like American, Northern Arizona and USC Upstate are still hopeless.

Last week

Kansas State opened with another dud at home against Texas Tech. The only good thing you could say about this game is the ‘Cats played some of their best defense this season before halftime, flying all over the court and holding the Red Raiders to just 27 points.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last and the offense looked absolutely awful, scoring a season-low 47. K-State shot 3-of-17, which just isn’t going to get it done against anyone.

Fortunately, things got a lot better against Oklahoma State’s considerably worse defense, and the most encouraging part of this win was the balance as four players reached double figures and another two scored 8. That was even with Makol Mawien held scoreless and limited by foul trouble.

K-State also got dominated on the boards, once again showing that doesn’t really matter nearly as much as the way the ‘Cats shoot and defend. It’s kind of a given that Kansas State will lose the rebounding battle at this point, so while it would be nice to see some improvement, we should probably stop stressing about it. Keep in mind Kansas has been outrebounded in every game except for the one in Manhattan, but that’s hardly keeping the Jayhawks from winning a lot, nor is it their biggest problem.

This week

For probably the first time in conference play, Kansas State will actually play two consecutive games it needs to win in order to avoid taking a step back. The Wildcats already have one three-game Big 12 win streak, and that was against much tougher competition.

Saturday’s game against Iowa State is by far the closest thing to a gimme in the Big 12, given the young Cyclones’ struggles away from home. They haven’t won a true road game all season and since falling 83-78 in Lawrence, they’ve lost by 23 at TCU, by 16 at Texas, by 14 at Baylor and by 18 at Texas Tech.

Texas has fared a little better on the road with three wins, including one at Iowa State. But the Longhorns have lost five straight away from home and don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with Kansas State if things are clicking.

Big 12 bubble teams

Everyone say hello to Oklahoma, because if you lose four straight and 7 of 9 you deserve at least a close inspection of your resume, even if the media loves your young superstar. Oklahoma is a game behind Kansas State in the conference and overall standings, so while I don’t have a problem with seeding the Sooners ahead of the Wildcats because of some quality noncon wins, putting them 5 seeds ahead seems a little ridiculous.

TCU makes its first appearance here as well, because 3 games under .500 this late in the season is a problem. Since the Big 12 expanded to the 18-game round robin, no team has won fewer than 8 games and made the NCAA tourney. It’s also worth noting no team has gone 7-11 in Big 12 play and finished with an overall winning record, so perhaps TCU or OU could set a new precedent.

We’re also going to change things up just a bit this week to better reflect what the committee might be looking at. Quality wins are now Quadrant 1 wins and Bad Losses are now Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 games. Here’s a handy explainer if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Kansas State (18-8, 7-6) RPI 56, KenPom 46
Quality Wins: vs. Oklahoma (21), vs. TCU (27), at Baylor (53), at Texas (55),
Bad Losses: vs. Tulsa (93)
Road/Neutral Wins: George Washington (in Las Vegas), Vanderbilt, Washington State (in Spokane), Iowa State, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State
Head-to-Head: 6-0

Oklahoma (16-9, 6-7) RPI 21, KenPom 30
Quality Wins: at USC (47), at Wichita State (19), at TCU (27), vs. Texas Tech (11), vs. TCU (27), vs. Kansas (10)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: Oregon (in Portland), Portland (in Portland), USC, Wichita State, TCU
Head-to-Head: 4-3

TCU (17-9, 5-8) RPI 27, KenPom 26
Quality Wins: vs. Nevada (N) (14), vs. St. Bonaventure (N) (41), at Baylor (53)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. St. Bonaventure (in Niceville, FL), vs. New Mexico (in Niceville), vs. Nevada (in LA), at Baylor, at Oklahoma State

Texas (15-11, 5-8) RPI 55, KenPom 45
Quality Wins: at Alabama (32), vs. Butler (N) (44), vs. TCU (27), vs. Texas Tech (11), vs. Oklahoma (21)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: Butler (in Portland), VCU, Alabama, Iowa State
Head-to-Head: 2-5

Oklahoma State (15-10, 5-8) RPI 98, KenPom 72
Quality Wins: vs. Florida State (N) (37), vs. Oklahoma (21), at Kansas (10), at West Virginia (31)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: Pittsburgh (in NYC), Florida State (in Sunrise, Fla.), Kansas, West Virginia
Head-to-Head: 2-6

Baylor (15-10, 6-7) RPI 53, KenPom 33
Quality Wins: vs. Creighton (N) (23), vs. Kansas (10), at Texas (55)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: Creighton (in KC), Wisconsin (in KC), Oklahoma State, Texas
Head-to-Head: 4-3

Obviously, Baylor had the best jump here, thanks to quality wins over Kansas at home and Texas on the road to extend its winning streak to four games. Keep that going against Texas Tech and West Virginia at home, and the Bears will be comfortably in the field by next Thursday.

Kansas State has some nice superlatives here, including the most road/neutral wins and by far the best head-to-head record. You’d think that would have to count for something, but obviously the worst noncon schedule and the only bad loss (since I believe Wichita counts as a home game) to Tulsa is weighing the Wildcats down considerably.

Oklahoma has some nice quality wins to brag about, but you would think all those losses would start to matter at some point, especially if recent play is really taken into consideration. The Sooners really need to beat Texas in Norman on Saturday, otherwise they’re probably looking at a 6-game skid and a 5-10 conference record with a trip to Lawrence next Monday.

It’s hard to see why Texas should be ahead of K-State, especially given the Longhorns have lost 3 in a row. That game in Norman is big for them, too, and obviously Oklahoma State is in trouble if it can’t win at TCU or home against Texas Tech.

The Horned Frogs may have some of the best computer numbers, but those inflated wins against Nevada and St. Bonaventure aren’t fooling everyone. TCU is fortunate to have a relatively easy four game stretch (vs. OSU, @ ISU, vs. BU, vs. KSU) before closing the regular season at Texas Tech.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs

Honestly, Kansas State is just about where we said they needed to be way back on Jan. 11. The path to get here involved fewer home wins and more road wins than expected, but that’s mostly okay.

The biggest concern is when noting 9-9 would probably be good enough, that assumed a win over at least one, if not two of the Big 12’s best teams. Thanks to Oklahoma’s collapse, K-State doesn’t have that kind of signature win, so 9-9 seems a lot more shaky.

Fortunately, the road wins mean Kansas State just needs to hold serve at home to go 10-8. That being said, with Baylor fully healthy and playing its best basketball of the season, a win at Oklahoma or TCU sure would be nice to take some of the pressure off before Senior Night against the Bears.