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Tournament Thursday: Disaster averted

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Another big road win more or less offset an embarrassing loss to keep Kansas State on the right track for Selection Sunday.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Kansas State
I just felt like we don’t give Makol enough love and this is a pretty cool picture.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas State is looking more and more like a team that will make the NCAA tournament, then bow out as soon as it plays a top-tier opponent. The good news is that might still mean Bruce Weber can get his first Round of 64 win as a Wildcat, so that’s something.

It’s hard to ignore K-State’s struggles against KenPom top 15 teams, which includes an 0-5 record and only one game that actually felt winnable (at Allen Fieldhouse, weirdly enough). On the bright side, ‘Cats have those nice home wins against TCU (KenPom 25) and Oklahoma (KenPom 26) and most importantly, a sparkling 6-0 Big 12 record against teams outside the top 15. No one else in the conference can say that.

It’s also becoming clear Cartier Diarra and Barry Brown are vital to this team’s success, especially as Kamau Stokes works his back towards becoming effective again. Kansas State’s backcourt can match up well with anyone in the league on a good night, but occasionally it falls well short of that level.

Really, though, for all of the offensive woes generating most of the attention lately, the fact of the matter is defense remains this team’s glaring weakness. K-State sits at 88th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency and is allowing Big 12 opponents to shoot better than 47% with a .628 rebounding percentage in conference play, both worst in the league. The ‘Cats average fewer than 19 rebounds per game while every other team grabs at least 22.9.

No one expects Bruce to turn this into an elite defense capable of always keeping opponents off the glass, but it sure would be nice if they could at least be respectable. It’s honestly a bit surprising to see this coaching staff oversee such a weak defensive team, particularly given the athleticism (if not the size) seems to be good enough to produce better results.

Kansas State leads the Big 12 with 8 steals per game, which makes you wonder if gambling a little less would be worth it to prevent getting out of position. The ‘Cats also rank second in 3-point percentage defense and generally seem to do a good job of closing out, so it seems like the biggest issues are defending the post and helping when guys get beat off the dribble.

Honestly, it might be too late to make any significant changes defensively, so K-State’s hopes of going deep into March will depend on playing at an elite offensive level. It’s not impossible for this group, but it’s also not very likely.

Current Status: Right Side of the Bubble

Many people knocked K-State to the “Last Four In” section of the bracket following the loss to West Virginia, and some brackets even took the ‘Cats out entirely. But a Big 12 road win against a pretty decent Texas team should put the Wildcats somewhat comfortably into the field once again.

As always, though, I prefer to ask the experts, 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 as the last 11 seed. Using the S-Curve the K-State would face the Shockers of Wichita State in the first round.

Kansas leads the Big 12 as a 2 seed, 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 while Texas dropped one spot today after getting beat by the Good Guys last night and would be seeded 9th Baylor is currently on the wrong side of the bubble as they are in the group of first four out.

Joining the Wildcats as an 11 seed are Middle Tennessee, Alabama, and Southern Cal. The four schools below KSU that made the cut are Providence, Washington, North Carolina State, and Maryland.

The Bracket Project lists Kansas State as an 11 seed, but only in 64 out of 108 brackets, which is kind of interesting and probably means there’s a lot of variance. Again, though, most of those brackets aren’t factoring in the win over Texas. Joe Lunardi does, and his latest bracket gives K-State the lowest spot not in the First Four, as an 11 seed facing Gonzaga in Wichita. I wouldn’t mind seeing history repeat itself in Koch Intrust Bank Arena.

SI’s Michael Beller gave Kansas State an 11-seed as one of the Last Four In, putting them in a play-in matchup against Houston for the right to play Florida State. Update: Beller’s newest bracket moves K-State out of the First Four but keeps them as an 11 seed, matched up against Miami with the winner to face Arizona.

Jerry Palm of CBS made K-State his first team out on Monday, Ryan Fagan of the Sporting News put Kansas State in the First Four as an 11 seed on Wednesday, and SB Nation’s resident bracketologist Chris Dobbertean on Tuesday also put the ‘Cats in a First Four matchup, this time against USC with the winner to play Michigan.

Nonconference play

We’re going to keep looking at the nonconference schedule until the Selection Committee follows the advice of The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy and stops factoring it into the process. 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* (5-19) RPI 324 (-1) KenPom 330 (+1)
72-51 vs. UMKC* (6-19) RPI 269 (-11) KenPom 309 (-15)
71-49 vs. UC Irvine (12-14) RPI 147 (+12) KenPom 149 (+12)
80-58 vs. Northern Arizona* (4-20) RPI 300 (-21) KenPom 329 (-8)
90-92 (N) vs. Arizona State (17-6) RPI 39 (+0) KenPom 29 (-2)
67-59 (N)vs. George Washington* (10-14) RPI 197 (-16) RPI KenPom 231 (-10)
77-68 vs. Oral Roberts (9-17) RPI 231 (-15) KenPom 233 (-27)
84-79 at Vanderbilt* (9-15) RPI 118 (+8) KenPom 86 (+1)
86-49 vs. South Carolina Upstate* (6-20) RPI 343 (-4) KenPom 337 (-1)
54-61 vs. Tulsa (13-10) RPI 99 (+21) KenPom 119 (+15)
89-71 vs. Southeast Missouri State (10-15) RPI 246 (-15) KenPom 259 (-12)
68-65 at Washington State* (9-13) RPI 166 (+0) KenPom 167 (-1)
56-51 vs. Georgia (13-10) RPI 72 (-17) KenPom 79 (-21)

Tulsa won a couple games to join UC Irvine as the only teams here with winning records in conference play, so at least that’s something. Just think, though, if not for that loss to the Hurricanes we could say Kansas State doesn’t have a loss to anyone outside the KenPom top 30, which would be quite impressive.

Sadly, Arizona State missed an opportunity with a close loss to Washington, and Georgia dropped two 2 road games at Mississippi State and Vandy to fall completely off the bubble with tough games vs. Auburn, at Florida and vs. Tennessee coming up next. There’s not a lot of good news here, so let’s just move on.

Last week

Kansas State played its worst game of the season at West Virginia, just looking terrible in all facets of the game, especially after halftime. Dean Wade played OK but that was about it as the ‘Cats lost by 38. It looked like a disaster from which K-State might have a hard time recovering from, at least if you assume normal rules of momentum and confidence apply to Bruce Weber teams.

Fortunately (and sometimes unfortunately) that is not the case, so the ‘Cats bounced back quite well for a critical 67-64 road win at Texas. We should have known praising the free throw shooting so much this season would eventually lead to some untimely misses, but luckily the offensively challenged Longhorns could not take advantage.

To no one’s surprise, Mo Bamba had a big game with 18 points and 12 assists, although K-State did a much better job of containing him in the second half. Meanwhile, five Wildcats scored in double figures, but the biggest offensive surprise was James Love III, who scored 6 points on 3-of-3 shooting from the field.

Kansas State is now just the third team with 3 Big 12 road wins, joining West Virginia and Kansas. It’s also the third time in six years Bruce Weber has won 3 games on the road in conference play, joining the Big 12 title team (6 wins) and last year’s team (4 wins). It’s definitely encouraging to see the ‘Cats can play well enough to beat good opponents away from home.

This Week

Saturday’s game against Texas Tech looks like the most important game remaining on the schedule. With the Red Raiders still very much in the Big 12 title hunt and somewhere around a 3 seed in most brackets, this is quite possibly Kansas State’s last chance at a signature win unless Oklahoma turns things around very soon. Plus, the ‘Cats have already lost 2 Big 12 home games and no team has lost 3 and still managed a winning record since Frank Martin’s last season, when both K-State and Baylor accomplished the feat.

Obviously, Texas Tech is very good, and it sure seems like they’ve adapted to Zach Smith’s absence after initially stumbling a bit. Still, the Red Raiders are only 2-3 on the road in Big 12 play and clearly more vulnerable away from the ridiculously named United Supermarkets Arena, where they’re still undefeated. Plus, Kansas State has an 8-game win streak against Texas Tech at Bramlage, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

The ‘Cats would do well to win at Oklahoma State, their best chance at a remaining road win. Winning at Gallagher-Iba is never easy, but OSU is only 3-3 there in conference play and K-State certainly won’t encounter anything like the hostile crowds of old. Plus, they broke a long losing streak there last season, so that should help with confidence.

Once again, two wins would come close to getting K-State off the bubble and into the tournament, while two losses might put the ‘Cats in a very precarious position. The Big 12 giveth, and the Big 12 taketh away.

Big 12 bubble teams

No one moved up or down to the bubble, so we’re looking at the same four teams this week. Kansas State actually made a decent jump of eight spots in the RPI but fell seven spots in the KenPom since the nature of a loss matters much more to those rankings. Also, Tulsa (just barely) got out of the bad loss category, so that’s cool.

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 (17-7, 6-5) RPI 59, KenPom 48
Quality Wins: vs. Oklahoma (18), vs. TCU (32), at Texas (46)
Bad Losses: None.
Road/Neutral Wins: George Washington (in Las Vegas), Vanderbilt, Washington State (in Spokane), Iowa State, Baylor, Texas
Head-to-Head: 3-0

Texas (15-9, 5-6) RPI 46, KenPom 38
Quality Wins: at Alabama (42), vs. Butler (34), vs. TCU (32), vs. Texas Tech (13), vs. Oklahoma (18) Bad Losses: at Oklahoma State (107)
Road/Neutral Wins: Butler (in Portland), VCU, Alabama, Iowa State
Head-to-Head: 0-3

Oklahoma State (14-10, 4-7) RPI 107, KenPom 69
Quality Wins: vs. Florida State (44), vs. Texas (50), vs. Oklahoma (11), at Kansas (6)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: Pittsburgh (in NYC), Florida State (in Sunrise, Fla.), Kansas
Head-to-Head: 1-3

Baylor (14-10, 4-7) RPI 73, KenPom 40
Quality Wins: vs. Creighton (27), vs. Texas (50)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: Creighton (in KC), Wisconsin (in KC), Oklahoma State
Head-to-Head: 3-1

Oklahoma State got that holy grail of Big 12 wins, in Lawrence, then followed it up with a home loss to Baylor. Full credit to the Bears for doing what they needed to by beating Iowa State and Oklahoma State, but now we’ll see if they’re ready to get back on the right side of the bubble by continuing that win streak against stiffer competition with Kansas coming to Waco and a trip to Austin two days later.

At some point Texas probably needs to pick up wins against some fellow bubble teams, so that Baylor game will be important. The Longhorns also have an interesting road trip this weekend to TCU, who could slide back to the bubble if they lose that game plus a game at West Virginia.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys could fall back off the bubble if they can’t find a win at West Virginia or against K-State can home. Basically what I’m saying is there’s still a lot of different scenarios that could play out in the final month of conference play.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs

When we talked about creating a margin of error before, I didn’t really expect that to be needed to make up for a 38-point loss. It worked out, though, and Kansas State still has some breathing room thanks to the win at Texas.

As noted before, the Texas Tech home win would be vital not only as a signature win, but because we identified it as the last of those four homes games in which K-State needed to pick up 3 wins. They got TCU and OU, so it would be great to finish the job.

One more road win beyond that sure would be nice and definitely seems possible with Oklahoma State, OU and TCU all having some issues. If it doesn’t happen, just holding serve at home the rest of the way to finish 10-8 in conference should be enough.

It’s not crazy to imagine 11 wins, which would hopefully mean a top 4 finish. If Kansas State continues its current pattern of beating all teams outside the top 15, the ‘Cats would lose to Texas Tech and then win out, meaning a 12-6 conference record. That would be pretty cool.