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Tournament Thursday: Surveying the crash site

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Kansas State’s loss to Texas A&M might not be as bad as you think, and we take a closer look at the Big 12’s bubble and bubble-adjacent teams.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Oklahoma
It would be really cool if Xavier Sneed could become a consistent scoring threat.
Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Weber teams just can’t make this easy.

I tried to think of a good metaphor for the loss at Texas A&M, and what I came up with is K-State went on a bike ride and didn’t spend the energy required to get enough speed going to hop a small curb, so the ‘Cats ended up crashing to the ground in slow motion. Fortunately, the injuries weren’t severe and K-State should be able to bounce right back up and keep riding once they’re back on the pathway that is Big 12 play.

That said, it’s a good reminder of what can happen when Barry Brown or Dean Wade has an off night at the offensive end. Tulsa is what happens when both are playing poorly, and they also didn’t play particularly well at Marquette when the supporting cast stepped up to score an impressively balanced 53 points.

But here’s the thing: Kamau Stokes has gone for 15+ 4 times, Xavier Sneed did it twice, Makol Mawien reached the mark once, and of course Mike McGuirl had his remarkable 18-point game. Only Kam has hit 20, and K-State needed every one in the 59-58 win over George Mason. He also saved the ‘Cats in the 55-51 win over Southern Miss.

This is just another way of illustrating the razor-thin margin for error for K-State’s offense. It’s at its best when Barry and Dean are both clicking, as evidenced by a 12-2 record with a +11 average margin of victory when they reach 15 points in the same game over the last two seasons. The lone losses came back-to-back at OU and TCU late last season.

But if they struggle, especially against quality opponents, there just aren’t a lot of options to pick up the slack. Most often, it takes a terrific defensive performance for Kansas State to come out on top. Not ideal, but Bruce Weber and his staff have made this approach more effective than you might expect, so kudos to them for that, I suppose.

Anyway, as you’ll see if you keep reading, things are about to get a little tougher and suddenly life after January doesn’t look quite as easy with Baylor on an impressive four-game win streak after beating OU by 30. The ‘Cats have the tools they need to survive, but they can’t afford too many more unexpected stumbles.

Current status: Solidly in

This obviously has gotten a little less solid since last week, but it’s important to understand K-State did not fall all the way back down to the bubble. At least not yet.

The Bracket Project shows the Wildcats in all 91 brackets with a 7 seed on average. You’ll note that’s actually one seed better than a week ago, largely because there’s a bit of a lag with the average and now all the projections include the nice home wins over TCU and Texas Tech. It’s also a good reflection of how a quality win over Texas Tech helps more than a bad loss at A&M hurts.

BotC commenter RazDad also put Kansas State on the 7 line, matched up against Chris Mullin and St. John’s. RazDad’s projections still put eight Big 12 teams in the tournament, with Kansas as a 2 seed, Texas Tech as a 4, Iowa State as a 5, Oklahoma as a 7, TCU as an 8, Texas as a 10 and Baylor as an 11.

Our friend Chris Dobbertean over at SB Nation’s Blogging the Bracket still likes Kansas State a lot and gave the ‘Cats a 5 seed and matched them up with Liberty, which would be great. Joe Lunardi puts Kansas State as a 7 seed against UCF, while SI’s Michael Beller gave K-State a 7-seed and a game against Wofford.

Nonconference play

Missouri almost made me cry on Saturday, when a 70-56 lead over No. 25 LSU with barely two minutes left somehow turned into an 86-80 overtime loss. On the plus side, the Tigers didn’t lose by 31 at Oklahoma like Vandy did.

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 with a nice graphic representation of the NET rankings, thanks to an assist from our own jeffp171.

56-41 vs. Kennesaw State (4-18) NET 337 (+4) KenPom 338 (+7)
64-56 vs. Denver (7-15) NET 307 (+15) KenPom 298 (+6)
95-68 vs. Eastern Kentucky (10-11) in Virgin Islands NET 226 (+0) KenPom 219 (+24)
64-48 vs. Penn (12-6) in Virgin Islands NET 83 (+44) KenPom 120 (+19)
82-67 vs. Missouri (10-8) in Virgin Islands NET 92 (-5) KenPom 95 (+7)
77-58 vs. Lehigh (13-6) NET 145 (+6) KenPom 150 (+2)
71-83 at Marquette (19-3) NET 18 (+3) KenPom 25 (+10)
46-47 at Tulsa (13-9) NET 90 (+21) KenPom 127 (+8)
59-71 vs. Georgia State (15-6) NET 128 (-25) KenPom 131 (-24)
55-51 vs. Southern Miss (12-9) NET 122 (+16) KenPom 141 (+5)
69-58 vs. Vanderbilt (9-11) in KC NET 114 (-38) KenPom 135 (-42)
59-58 vs. George Mason (13-8) NET 127 (+15) KenPom 114 (+0)
53-65 at Texas A&M (8-11) NET 105 KenPom 132

jeffp171

Denver got a win against Oral Roberts and Penn picked up another nice win against a Philadelphia school, beating St. Joseph’s. Kennesaw State even won a game and Marquette passed both of its Big East road tests, knocking off Xavier and Butler to extend its lead over third-place Georgetown to a hefty 3.5 games.

Tulsa picked up a home win over Memphis, while hapless Vanderbilt extended its losing streak to eight game and Texas A&M got run off its own floor in the second half against LSU. George Mason has won five straight and moved into first place in the Atlantic 10.

Last week

We all know what happened Saturday and it was mentioned in the introduction. No need to talk more about it, except to say it won’t hurt K-State as much as you might think. I certainly feel better about it now than I did Saturday afternoon.

This week

Kansas State gets a couple more high-value games, which means wins would be valuable and losses would not be terribly detrimental to the resume. The first one is at Oklahoma State, where the Cowboys look very beatable this season (6-4) even though they did manage to beat Frank Martin’s Gamecocks on Saturday. This is one K-State would do well to win, since it’s possible OSU could falter down the stretch and turn this into a bad loss.

Monday is, of course, the biggest game of the year in Manhattan. The Jayhawks are 1-5 on the road and come to town looking to extend their win streak in Bramlage to four games. That means there will be seniors attending this game who have never been in the student section for a win over KU. They deserve better. If K-State makes some shots and keeps KU’s streaky shooters (Lagerald Vick and Devon Dotson especially) from going off, this is a very winnable game and would be a huge resume boost.

Big 12 bubble competition

It’s time to start taking a deeper dive on this section. Keep in mind the committee doesn’t necessarily pit conference teams against each other when making its selections, but it would be foolish to believe those easy comparisons are totally ignored. The Big 12 has a legit shot to be an 8-bid league with only Oklahoma State and West Virginia lagging seriously behind, but I’m not sure there are any truly elite teams here, either.

There are a couple locks, though, as Texas Tech and KU have done enough to prove themselves worthy to this point. Iowa State is close enough to this category that we can’t really consider them on the bubble. That leaves us with five team profiles to look at, even though K-State, Oklahoma and TCU are all solidly in the field for now.

Just like last year, quality wins are Quadrant 1 wins, which means home wins over the top 1-30 teams in the NET rankings, neutral wins against the top 50, and away wins against the top 75. Bad Losses are those against Quadrant 3 and 4 teams, which means those ranked worse than 75 at home, worse than 100 at neutral sites, and worse than 135 on the road. Here’s a more detailed explainer on the Quadrant system.

You’ll note that losses at Tulsa and Texas A&M are not quite Quadrant 3 losses, but they are somewhat close.

Kansas State (15-5, 5-2) NET 35, KenPom 44
Quality Wins: at Iowa St. (NET 14), at Oklahoma (32), vs. TCU (30) vs. Texas Tech (15)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. Eastern Kentucky (in the Virgin Islands), vs. Penn (in the VI), vs. Missouri (in the VI), at Iowa State, at Oklahoma
Head-to-Head: 2-1

Oklahoma (15-6, 3-5) NET 32, KenPom 35
Quality Wins: vs. Florida (39) in The Bahamas, vs. TCU (30), at Oklahoma St. (70)
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. Florida (in The Bahamas), vs. Dayton (in The Bahamas), at Northwestern, at Oklahoma State
Head-to-Head: 1-3

TCU (15-5, 3-4) NET 30, KenPom 29
Quality Wins: None
Bad Losses: None
Road/Neutral Wins: at SMU, vs. USC at the Staples Center, vs. Charlotte in Hawaii, vs. Bucknell in Hawaii, vs. Indiana State in Hawaii
Head-to-Head: 2-2

Texas (12-9, 4-4) NET 41, KenPom 32
Quality Wins: vs. North Carolina (9) in Las Vegas, vs. Purdue (9), at Kansas St. (35), vs. Oklahoma (32), vs. Kansas (20)
Bad Losses: vs. Radford (123)
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. Arkansas in Fort Bliss (TX), vs. UNC in Las Vegas, at Kansas State
Head-to-Head: 2-1

Baylor (14-6, 5-2) NET 34, KenPom 33
Quality Wins: at Arizona (66), vs. Iowa State (14), at Oklahoma St. (70), vs. Texas Tech (15), at Oklahoma (32)
Bad Losses: vs. Texas Southern (236), vs. Stephen F. Austin (274)
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. George Mason in Niceville (FL), at Arizona, at Oklahoma St., at West Virginia, at Oklahoma
Head-to-Head: 1-1

It’s kind of amazing how close all these teams are by just about every metric, especially the NET rankings where they range from 30-41. All five could easily get into the tournament and probably would if the season ended today, so really it’s mostly about winning games at home and not losing to West Virginia or Oklahoma State.

Kansas State’s 4 quality wins to 0 quality losses stack up pretty well, even if that’s a bit deceiving. The ‘Cats also have arguably the best collection of road/neutral wins, which is another good way to combat those somewhat poor RPI and KenPom rankings.

TCU’s resume might be the most intriguing, since as of now the Horned Frogs’ best win is probably a home victory over Baylor before the Bears started surging. Trips to Waco and Ames plus a home date vs. KU over the next two weeks will give TCU a chance to either pick up a signature win or start sinking below the water line.

Texas and Baylor both offer very inconsistent resumes, especially the Bears with their two disastrous sub-200 losses. Of course, they’re also the hottest team in the Big 12 right now with four straight games against fellow bubble teams coming up (vs. TCU, @ UT, vs. KSU, vs. OU) while the Longhorns looked to be headed for trouble prior to Tuesday’s big win over Kansas.

That leaves Oklahoma as the coldest bubble team right now, and this year the Sooners don’t have Trae Young’s popularity to save them should they start slumping in February once again. A 30-point loss to Baylor feels like a bad omen, so Oklahoma could probably use a win at West Virginia on Saturday before Iowa State and Texas Tech visit Norman.

What K-State needs to do to make the NCAAs

The calculus clearly changes here with a loss at Texas A&M, but probably not by more than one win. That means 8-10 won’t be a sure bet anymore, although if Kansas State gets there with a victory over Kansas or maybe even a win at Baylor that could be enough to offset the losses.

Either way, going 4-7 the rest of the way shouldn’t be that hard, and we really should expect much better from this group. A win at Oklahoma State Saturday would be huge, but the ‘Cats still just need to take care of business in all their non-Kansas home games (ISU, OSU, BU, OU). That’s not too much to ask, plus road games at Texas, West Virginia and possibly even TCU all look very winnable.

It might be necessary to take all of those and hold serve at home to capture a top 4 seed, but that still feels more likely than missing the tournament altogether at this point. Given some of the statistical numbers, especially on offense, it’s really kind of hard to believe K-State is 15-5, but let’s not forget those are the most important numbers and right now, they’re still pretty damn good.