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Tournament Thursday: How high can the ‘Cats go?

Kansas State’s impressive win streak has made a regular season title seem more likely than missing the NCAA tournament with 12 games to play.

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NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Marquette
It sure is nice to have this guy back in the lineup and scoring points.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Five-game winning streaks sure are great.

In two weeks, Kansas State has gone from solidly on the bubble to within sight of a top 4 seed, which would likely mean an opportunity for two games in Des Moines or Tulsa. In case you were wondering, Tulsa is the shorter drive from Manhattan by about 60 miles and 18 minutes, according to Goggle Maps. But it’s too early to be worrying about those details just yet.

However, while the players and coaches stay focused on the road ahead, this is a great time for us as fans to celebrate some big wins and recognize the huge strides forward taken by this team. Dean Wade’s return seems to have energized the ‘Cats on both sides of the floor and the shot selection is looking noticeably better, even if the overall offense and 3-point accuracy leave plenty to be desired.

For evidence of the elite defense look no further than the astounding stats, starting with Kansas State’s accomplishment of holding three of the last four opponents to a season-low. Oklahoma scored only 3 points higher than its season-low, and the four opponents shot a combined below 41% from the field (28% from 3) while averaging 15.5 turnovers per game. Those are elite numbers.

Meanwhile, K-State has shot a respectable 51% from inside the arc, highlighted by an impressive 10-for-13 first half Tuesday night against Texas Tech. The Wildcats offense still doesn’t look elite by any stretch of the imagination, but so long as Brown and Wade can provide consistent production with another player or two every game stepping up to hit double digits, it’s more than serviceable.

Would I love to see some more movement and fewer possessions with guards dribbling out 20 seconds while nothing else really happens? Of course. Perhaps we’ll get there. It was also slightly regrettable to see K-State drop back to 68% (15-22) from the free throw line against Texas Tech after three straight games of 75% or better, but I suppose that was inevitable.

Either way, Kansas State is looking good enough that national writers are taking notice and the Wildcats should be able to earn their way back into the Top 25 by next Monday. If that happens, Tournament Thursday will probably take the week off, because honestly, there won’t be a whole lot of new information to share, especially since KSU doesn’t play another Big 12 game until next Saturday at Oklahoma State.

A final note on the win streak: It’s the first time Bruce Weber has won 5 straight Big 12 games since he won 6 in a row almost 6 years ago en route to Kansas State’s only regular season conference title since 1977.

Current status: Solidly in

We’ll talk about what K-State needs to do to get to lock status a little later, but for now let’s just appreciate how high the ‘Cats have climbed in several brackets. The Bracket Project shows Kansas State in 85 of 87 brackets (send your angry emails here and here) with an average of an 8 seed. Our friend Chris Dobbertean over at SB Nation’s Blogging the Bracket gave the Wildcats a 5 seed even before they dispatched Texas Tech, but I have to admit the prospect a first-round matchup against Murray State and maybe the best collegiate point guard in America is a little terrifying.

Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology penciled K-State in as an 8 seed on Monday with a first-round matchup against Indiana and SI’s Michael Beller has the exact same matchup in his Tuesday projection.

Our own RazDad’s formula actually likes the ‘Cats less than most, giving them an 8 seed and a first-round matchup against Syracuse, which is a little frightening since the Orange just beat Duke. As for other Big 12 teams, RazDad says KU would be a 2 seed, Texas Tech dropped to a 3 seed, Iowa State is a 7 seed along with Oklahoma, TCU is a 9 seed, Texas is a 10 seed and Baylor enters the field as a 12-seed. Yes, that’s 8 Big 12 bids. This conference is deep.

Nonconference play

The reality is Kansas State’s nonconference schedule is going to be a significant weight holding the ‘Cats back as they try to rise higher, especially that unspeakably ugly loss at Tulsa. If just one more shot had gone in or the Golden Hurricane had missed one of their 19 successful field goals, we’d be talking about a top 15 teams with serious talk of a top 3 seed. Alas.

You’ll see the movement from last week reflected in the results below. Remember, a + means improvement from the previous week while a - means a drop in the rankings. We’ve also added a new feature this week with a nice graphic representation of the NET rankings, thanks to an assist from our own jeffp171.

56-41 vs. Kennesaw State (3-17) NET 344 (-3) KenPom 345 (-0)
64-56 vs. Denver (7-14) NET 305 (+17) KenPom 293 (+11)
95-68 vs. Eastern Kentucky (9-10) in Virgin Islands NET 222 (+4) KenPom 231 (+12)
64-48 vs. Penn (11-6) in Virgin Islands NET 88 (+41) KenPom 124 (+15)
82-67 vs. Missouri (10-5) in Virgin Islands NET 81 (+6) KenPom 78 (+24)
77-58 vs. Lehigh (11-6) NET 148 (+3) KenPom 149 (+3)
71-83 at Marquette (17-3) NET 20 (+1) KenPom 34 (+1)
46-47 at Tulsa (12-7) NET 96 (+15) KenPom 132 (+3)
59-71 vs. Georgia State (14-5) NET 110 (-7) KenPom 113 (-6)
55-51 vs. Southern Miss (11-8) NET 142 (-4) KenPom 157 (-11)
69-58 vs. Vanderbilt (9-9) in KC NET 82 (-6) KenPom 98 (-5)
59-58 vs. George Mason (12-8) NET 130 (+12) KenPom 111 (+3)


Eastern Kentucky and Denver went a combined 3-0 last week, so that’s pretty cool. Penn finally ended a four-game losing streak with a really nice win at Temple and Marquette kept cruising as it heads into a pair of key road games at Xavier and Butler, two quality programs not exactly playing up to their usual standards.

Missouri finally got an SEC win, but of course it came against upcoming opponent Texas A&M, so that comes out as a wash. Sadly, the Tigers could not carry that momentum into Arkansas, where they suffered a wildly frustrating 72-60 loss to Mike Anderson’s crew.

Vanderbilt missed a chance at the biggest win of the week by blowing a late lead against No. 1 Tennessee. On the plus side, George Mason remained atop the A-10 standings after a big road win at Dayton.

Last week

K-State took care of business in Bramlage by knocking off TCU and Texas Tech without really even allowing any hint of a serious comeback in the final 10 minutes of either game. It’s worth noting the ‘Cats shot fewer than 18 threes in both games, something they hadn’t done since Christmas. Draw your own conclusions.

Barry Brown put together a couple more masterful defensive performances, first by helping to force TCU point guard and Big 12 assists leader Alex Robinson into 8 turnovers compared to just four assists. Then for the second time this season he frustrated Texas Tech’s future lottery pick Jarrett Culver, who needed 16 shot attempts (plus four made free throws) just to reach 17 points, still almost two below his season average.

This week

The last two weeks featured plenty of great opportunities for big wins with little risk of picking up a bad loss, especially if you believe TCU will continue to hang around .500 in conference play despite several defections from the roster. This week is just the opposite, as everyone will expect Kansas State to beat Texas A&M, a team currently just behind Tulsa at 133rd in KenPom’s rankings. Enough said.

Oh, and since there might not be a Tournament Thursday next week, let’s go ahead and look at the following two games, at Oklahoma State and Kansas at home. Obviously, winning at Stillwater would be great (the Cowboys are only 5-4 at GIA this season) but I think we’d all agree beating Kansas on Big Monday qualifies as a high priority, both for the quality win and the Big 12 title implications, not to mention that whole rivalry thing.

Big 12 bubble competition

We’ll go more in-depth in February, but for now KU looks like the only real lock. Texas Tech could get into trouble if it can’t stop the slide soon, while Oklahoma and Iowa State keep doing enough to stay comfortably above the line.

TCU got a much-needed win over Texas with a huge opportunity coming up Saturday when Florida visits Fort Worth. The Longhorns can’t afford to lose at Georgia with a home game vs. KU and then a trip to Iowa State to follow, and of course Baylor’s stock has risen significantly with 3 straight wins prior to 6 more against (as of now) unranked teams.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs

This keeps getting simpler and simpler. Essentially, four or five more wins ought to do it. Texas A&M would be a great place to start, then it’s not hard to imagine a win in Stillwater.

Pull off the upset over KU in Bramlage on Big Monday, then win at Baylor or Texas (both would be nice, too) and K-State could be a lock before Valentine’s Day. If you want the simplest, bare minimum path, that would probably be beating A&M, then winning at home vs. Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Oklahoma. The ‘Cats also still play road games against the bottom two teams in the conference, Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

Just for fun, though, let’s spend a bit of time thinking about where K-State would be if it finishes with 12 or 13 Big 12 wins. That seems very possible, as it would only require winning out at home, beating A&M and taking two or three of the final six conference road games at Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas and TCU.

Combine those wins with a trip to the Big 12 final and K-State’s final record is 25-9 or possibly even 26-8 against a formidable schedule (thanks almost entirely to the Big 12) with only one bad loss. It is of course important to remember these things aren’t considered in a vacuum and it will depend on how other teams across the country stack up, but using past history and current records we can take an educated guess.

Given upcoming schedules and where they are now, it seems safe to say Tennessee, Duke, Gonzaga, Virginia, Michigan, Michigan State and Kentucky will all stay ahead of Kansas State barring an unexpected collapse. It would be tough to surpass KU and I’m tempted to add Marquette and Nevada to that group given how weak their schedules are, but we should probably wait until they’ve faced their toughest challenges over these next two weeks.

Either way, reaching the 2 seed line seems improbable unless the ‘Cats win out or something close to it from this point, but perhaps a 3 seed could be in play. Last season, the three seeds were Tennessee (25-8), Michigan (28-7), Texas Tech (24-9) and Michigan State (29-4). UNC actually got a 2 seed with 10 losses but of course played a very challenging schedule and, let’s be honest, has the advantage of “North Carolina” on the front of the jersey.

The 2017 tournament saw Baylor get a 3 seed with a 25-7 record, although the Bears played a better noncon schedule than K-State this year or Tech a year ago. Still, given that history, it’s not hard to imagine the committee awarding the Wildcats a 3 seed with 8 or maybe even 9 losses, so long as they’ve got the quality wins to prove they can compete at that level.