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Tournament Thursday: Almost there

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Kansas State’s chances for a bid look very, very good, but this is no time to relax.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Kansas State
It’s nearly celebration time for Kansas State when it comes to whether the NCAA tournament will call their name.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Weber can’t close out games. Kansas State will miss key free throws. There’s no go-to guy. The ‘Cats can’t come up with the big stop. So went the narrative over the past few seasons. But at least for now, none of that seems to be true.

Since the beginning of January — therefore not even including the improbable late comeback vs. lowly Washington State in Spokane — Kansas State is 5-1 in games when neither team led by more than five points with 5:00 left. Sure, the ‘Cats only erased a deficit once, and that was the two-point Texas lead on Wednesday, but it still says something K-State always held on and usually pulled away against solid opponents.

Finishing strong starts with the best free throw shooting team we’ve seen in years. The ‘Cats rank third in the Big 12, shooting 75% from the line in conference play, although they did come dangerously close to faltering down the stretch against Texas in Austin, when Barry Brown missed the front end of a one-and-one and Dean Wade missed a potential clincher to give the Longhorns’ dismal offense some extra chances.

Speaking of Wade and Brown, though, they’ve been remarkably reliable in the most important part of games since their mishap against Kansas in Manhattan. Experience is finally paying off, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

Finally, the defense is coming through in a big way, first holding Georgia to 2 points in the last five minutes and then doing the same to Texas if you take away an utterly meaningless final bucket when K-State had already stopped playing. More impressively, the defense held a good TCU offense to just one point between Alex Robinson’s layup with 2:50 left and JD Miller’s dunk off a steal with six seconds left in a 73-68 win over the Horned Frogs.

Yes, it would still be great to see Kansas State actually score a winning basket when tied or trailing late, and it’s true the ‘Cats haven’t exactly been clutch against elite competition. Nonetheless, it’s a key step forward, and these are the kind of wins that take you from the bubble and into the tournament.

Current status: Right side of the bubble

As of now, Kansas State appears solidly in the field for almost everyone, as you’d expect for a team three games above .500 in the country’s deepest conference. Still, the nonconference schedule is dragging down the ‘Cats quite a bit, so the seeds don’t look great and no one is calling this team a lock.

Let’s hear the good news from 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’s projections have Kansas State as a 10-seed facing Florida State in the first round. Kansas is currently the highest number 2 seed, while Texas Tech is the highest 3 seed, and West Virginia is still a 4 seed. TCU is on top of the second group of Big 12 teams as they have an 8 seed. Oklahoma dropped all the way to a 9 seed while Baylor joins the Wildcats as a 10 seed. Texas is seeded 11th and would be sent to Dayton for the play-in game.

Joining the Wildcats and the Bears as 10 seeds are Arkansas and Alabama. The other at-large team in the bracket below KSU and not playing in Dayton is Louisville. Joining Texas in Dayton would be Syracuse, Providence, and NC State. The first 4 teams out are St. Bonaventure, USC, Penn State, and Notre Dame.

The Bracket Project slots Kansas State as the last 10 seed, in 59 of 70 brackets. I’m skeptical about how much a home win over Texas really moves the needle, so don’t expect that to change a lot before the Oklahoma game.

Joe Lunardi updated his bracket today and gave K-State a 10-seed in Detroit with a matchup against Florida followed by a likely meeting with Purdue. Could be worse. SI’s Michael Beller also gives the ‘Cats a 10-seed, facing Missouri (NO) with Duke as the 2 seed.

Ryan Fagan of The Sporting News gave Kansas State his last 10 seed in his Wednesday bracket, and SB Nation’s Chris Dobbertean still said the ‘Cats were an 11 seed as of Tuesday. At least they’re not a play-in, and they would get St. Mary’s in the first round with No. 3 seed Arizona likely looming.

Nonconference play

Here is that infamous nonconference schedule, which Jerry Palm of CBS says “could be the worst ever for an at-large team” if KSU makes the tourney. OK? I’m not sure how that’s relevant, really. Anyway, 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* (6-22) RPI 332 (-3) KenPom 327 (+1)
72-51 vs. UMKC* (9-19) RPI 253 (-2) KenPom 287 (+1)
71-49 vs. UC Irvine (14-15) RPI 142 (-10) KenPom 145 (-4)
80-58 vs. Northern Arizona* (4-23) RPI 310 (-10) KenPom 330 (-0)
90-92 (N) vs. Arizona State (19-7) RPI 28 (-3) KenPom 33 (-2)
67-59 (N)vs. George Washington (13-15) RPI 180 (+8) RPI KenPom 190 (+30)
77-68 vs. Oral Roberts* (10-20) RPI 252 (-17) KenPom 238 (-1)
84-79 at Vanderbilt* (11-17) RPI 111 (+2) KenPom 86 (+3)
86-49 vs. South Carolina Upstate* (7-23) RPI 345(-4) KenPom 338 (-0)
54-61 vs. Tulsa (17-10) RPI 78 (+15) KenPom 113 (+6)
89-71 vs. Southeast Missouri State (14-15) RPI 225 (+5) KenPom 244 (+3)
68-65 at Washington State* (10-16) RPI 177 (+8) KenPom 185 (+3)
56-51 vs. Georgia (15-12) RPI 70 (-1) KenPom 71 (+8)

UC Irvine missed its chance to move into first in the Big West with a loss to Hawai’i, but the Anteaters could get a big win this weekend at home against conference leaders UC Santa Barbara. All of us will be watching the score on that one very closely, I’m sure.

George Washington actually won a couple games and moved up a lot, so that’s cool, although it would be cooler if Xavier was on this list instead of the Colonels. Sadly, Arizona State kept that from happening and now the Sun Devils are back to .500 in Pac-12 play after missing a big home opportunity against Arizona last weekend.

Perhaps no opponent will have a bigger opportunity this weekend than Tulsa, who takes a six-game winning streak on the road to No. 11 Cincinnati. Southeast Missouri State brings a four-game win streak into tonight’s game at Eastern Kentucky before closing out the regular season with UT Martin, which really should mean two more wins.

Last week

Kansas State did what it needed to do at home, even with bad weather keeping many fans away. Things started a little shakily against Iowa State, but before we could get too worried, the ‘Cats opened up a big second-half lead and cruised to the finish against the young, inexperienced Cyclones.

It took a little more to put Texas away in a game somewhat hard to watch for fans of both teams. But Barry Brown turned it on late and even buried an in-your-face three to cap it all off, completing the season sweep against the Longhorns for the second straight year.

Next week

While those two wins essentially kept Kansas State on track, a pair of victories this week could be looked at as a sort of bonus to improve seeding against two teams who may be ranked too highly by the computers. That’s especially true for Oklahoma, and hopefully the ‘Cats can pick up where they left off in Manhattan, the game that really kicked off the Sooners’ slide.

The 87-69 win remained OU’s biggest loss until a rout in Lawrence on Monday, but I’m kind of hoping the game K-State remembers is the disaster in Norman last year. A 30-point loss to a mediocre team without its best players should serve as plenty of motivation to avoid any sort of letdown.

Seemingly the trickier of the two games will be at TCU, where the Horned Frogs have won four of their last five, all by at least nine. Injuries have weakened this group, but they’re still quite good and should be hungry to secure a tournament seed of their own.

Just remember, if things go poorly and K-State loses two straight, the fan instinct might be to declare the season over. Don’t do that. It would be unfortunate, but certainly not insurmountable.

Big 12 bubble teams

You would think a team on a six-game losing streak sitting three games under .500 with a pair of losses to decent but not great SEC teams would be on the bubble. However, according to a lot of people, you’d be wrong, although Lunardi dropped OU all the way to a 10 seed today.

I still want to put Oklahoma in here so you can look at the resumes and see if you can figure out why most people insist the Sooners are safe. I’m not really seeing it, but then again, I’m not taking a deep dive into all the numbers and past precedents set by the committee.

Oklahoma State, meanwhile, holds the same Big 12 record but just barely stayed on the bubble thanks to a stunning win over Texas Tech on Wednesday. It’s not especially difficult to see why the Cowboys might need to win out against Texas, Iowa State and Kansas to make the Dance.

The only change is two wins takes TCU off the bubble and solidly in although yes, I realize they’re still behind Oklahoma in most projected brackets. That’s stupid.

Keep in mind we’ve updated some things here 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 (20-8, 9-6) RPI 55, KenPom 46
Quality Wins: vs. TCU (21), at Baylor (59), at Texas (54),
Road/Neutral Wins: George Washington (in Las Vegas), Vanderbilt, Washington State (in Spokane), Iowa State, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State
Bad losses: Tulsa (78)
Head-to-Head: 6-0

Oklahoma (16-11, 6-9) RPI 32, KenPom 30
Quality Wins: at USC (36), at Wichita State (15), at TCU (21), vs. Texas Tech (17), vs. TCU (21), vs. Kansas (6)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: Oregon (in Portland), Portland (in Portland), USC, Wichita State, TCU
Head-to-Head: 2-4

Texas (16-12, 6-9) RPI 54, KenPom 41
Quality Wins: at Alabama (30), vs. Butler (N) (34), vs. TCU (21), vs. Texas Tech (17), at Oklahoma (32)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: Butler (in Portland), VCU, Alabama, Iowa State, at Oklahoma
Head-to-Head: 2-5

Oklahoma State (16-11, 6-9) RPI 98, KenPom 70
Quality Wins: vs. Florida State (N) (45), at Kansas (6), at West Virginia (24)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: Pittsburgh (in NYC), Florida State (in Sunrise, Fla.), Kansas, West Virginia
Head-to-Head: 2-5

Baylor (16-11, 7-8) RPI 59, KenPom 36
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: 4-2

Kansas State remained virtually the same in both computer rankings, which seems a little harsh but whatever. On the plus side, no Big 12 team has been left out with a .500 record since NIT champion Baylor in 2013, and no 20-win team from the conference has been denied a spot since 21-11 (9-7 Big 12) K-State got snubbed in 2009.

Oklahoma State at Texas Saturday feels like an elimination game, and certainly nothing is guaranteed for the winner. The biggest opportunities to strengthen resumes this week belong to the ‘Cats with their two road tests and Texas, who travels to Lawrence on Monday. Win that plus a home game against the Cowboys and the Longhorns should be in decent shape.

Baylor still needs to do some work, possibly by winning both at TCU and vs. Oklahoma to feel comfortable. If the Sooners can finally bounce back and knock of KSU as well as Baylor, they obviously won’t be here next week.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs

Honestly, winning one more game should be enough, whether it’s on this two-game road trip, at home vs. Baylor, or in the Big 12 tournament. Do that and you have to figure the ‘Cats are in unless some weird stuff happens in conference tournaments.

It sure would be nice to take care of that soon, especially since winning Oklahoma or TCU would almost certainly be Kansas State’s best win of the season on paper. This is the perfect time to catch the Sooners and the ‘Cats are still unbeaten against every team below them in the Big 12 standings. Why stop now?