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Tournament Thursday: So you’re saying there’s a chance?

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The outlook is grim and Kansas State hasn’t shown a lot of potential for the improvement it needs, but technically the Cats could still turn things around in time to make the Big Dance.

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Basketball Tipoff
Bruce needs to find some more magic to lead this team back to the NCAA Tournament.
William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Hey! Stop laughing. Really. I mean it.

Kansas State’s tournament prospects are probably somewhere between Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar’s chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, but they’re not giving up and neither should we. The 18-game Big 12 slate awaits, so in this edition of Tournament Thursday (possibly the only one you’ll see this season) we’ll take a quick look at how bad things really are and discuss the scenarios that could send the Cats to their fourth straight NCAA tournament.

We all know the weaknesses of this team by now: terribly inconsistent post play, awful shooting from everywhere including the free throw line, poor offensive execution and an apparent lack of the great leadership that made K-State so good a year ago. The win over Tulsa showed glimpses of some improvement, but it’s not like this team has any missing pieces that will suddenly turn things around in a big way.

At five losses, Kansas State enters conference play tied with Iowa State at the bottom of the Big 12 standings. The only other time Bruce Weber lost five games before January at K-State, the Wildcats finished 15-17 (5-13 in conference play) for the worst season of his tenure.

Hopefully this year won’t get that bad, but it could be a struggle. If you want any reason for optimism, consider that perhaps the Big 12 isn’t the best conference in the country this year, but it’s still very good so I’m not sure how much that will help. Anyway, let’s look at some details.

Current status: Nope

With a NET ranking of 96 and a KenPom rating of 89, Kansas State can barely see the bubble, gleaming far off in the distance.

Nonconference play

K-State’s nonconference strength of schedule currently ranks 230th, according to KenPom. That is not good. The Cats’ best win came last Saturday against Tulsa, who is ranked 116th. Also not good.

Alabama is currently ranked 62nd, so KSU could still pick up a better noncon win, and that one’s on the road. It’s a small consolation. Also, Florida A&M beat Iowa State (without Tyrese Halliburton) at Hilton Coliseum yesterday so that’s 1) hilarious and 2) a slight boost to K-State’s nonconference resume.

Keep in mind last year the NCAA replaced the RPI with its new NET rankings, so that’s what we’ll be using here along with the KenPom numbers to evaluate opponents. Records are included as well.

67-54 vs. North Dakota State (9-5) NET 146 KenPom 151
60-56 at UNLV (7-8) NET 166 KenPom 158
73-54 vs. Monmouth (6-5) NET 237 KenPom 225
62-51 vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1-11) NET 346
59-63 vs. Pittsburgh* (10-3) NET 74 KenPom 76
60-73 vs. Bradley* (10-4) NET 113 KenPom 113
76-58 vs. Florida A&M (2-9) NET 240 KenPom 301
65-73 vs. Marquette (10-3) NET 37 KenPom 32
86-41 vs. Alabama State (1-12) NET 338 KenPom 337
61-67 vs. Mississippi State^ (9-3) NET 80 KenPom 54
63-66 vs. Saint Louis+ (11-2) NET 56 KenPom 91
69-67 vs. Tulsa (7-2) NET 121 KenPom 116
* - at Fort Myers, Fla.
^ - at Newark, NJ
+ - At KC

Lots of mediocre teams, and some that are straight-up garbage. You would expect UNLV to be a bit better, but they went and lost home games to Texas State and Pacific. On the plus side, North Dakota State might be the Summit League’s best team, so that’s cool.

If you want to give Kansas State credit for something, at least they’re somewhat consistent. The five losses came against the five best teams, according to both computer rankings. It’s glaringly obvious K-State should not have struggled to put away Arkansas-Pine Bluff, but we’ll just have to deal with that.

Last week

Kansas State rallied from an early double-digit deficit to beat Tulsa. Great. Now it’s time to go prove that meant something more than just an average win.

This week

This is where things start to get interesting. A year ago, of course, Kansas State started conference play 0-2 before going on a tear to win the Big 12 title. If the Wildcats start this Big 12 season 0-2, they’ll be basically dead in the water.

That’s because they open Saturday at Oklahoma and then host TCU, two of the worst teams in the Big 12 so far and according to the preseason poll. Also, Kansas State really doesn’t want to take a two-game losing streak into a brutal stretch of at Texas, vs. No. 22 Texas Tech, vs. No. 16 West Virginia and at No. 3 Kansas.

Big 12 bubble competition

Briefly: Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Baylor should all be playing March. Probably Texas, too. Oklahoma State and maybe Oklahoma look like potential bubble teams, while Iowa State and TCU have significant work to do.

What Kansas State needs to do to make the NCAAs

I’m not going to try and decide the likelihood of any of this happening. I’ll leave that up to you. The focus here will be on what realistic(ish) scenarios would potentially allow Kansas State to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

Again, the ‘Cats have five losses already, and another fairly tough nonconference matchup at Alabama looms later this month. There’s nothing resembling a quality win on the resume as of yet, so beating the Crimson Tide would be extremely helpful.

If that happens, I’d venture to guess 11-7 in the Big 12 for a 19-12 overall record would be good enough. 10-8 with at least one Big 12 tournament win might work. If the Cats lose to Alabama, they might need 12 conference wins (including the postseason) although that number could drop if a couple wins come against highly ranked teams.

Of course, it’s impossible to get to 11 or 12 wins in the Big 12 without beating a ranked team, which is what makes this so difficult. Currently 2 teams are ranked in the top 10, another is No. 16, and that doesn’t include the defending runner-up, which is a young Top 25 team likely to keep getting better as the season goes along.

That all makes it extremely difficult to imagine a scenario where Kansas State gets to double-digit wins without taking at least 6 of 8 against unranked Iowa State, Oklahoma, TCU and Oklahoma State. Losing to any of those teams at home would be a huge blow. If the Cats can stay alive until March, it could be helpful that they finish in Stillwater and then Iowa State visits Manhattan on Senior Day.

But that still leaves a few more wins to get to the bare minimum of 10. Some of the NCAA’s best teams this season have lost to bad opponents on the road, so perhaps K-State could pull off some upsets as well. The Wildcats could take some key steps toward building an adequate resume by beating Texas, West Virginia and Texas Tech at home, although two of those three plus a win over Baylor or Kansas might be more useful, if the rankings stay what they are now.

Throw in a surprising road win at Austin or Morgantown and the Cats would probably have enough to earn a top 5 seed in KC, reach at least the semifinals by picking up one more quality win, and then get into the Big Dance.

If K-State were to do something totally ridiculous like sweep KU, Baylor and Texas Tech, yet still somehow end up with only 9 league wins, then this still might be a bubble team. I don’t know. Might be fun.

To summarize, I’d say the best-case scenario for K-State to sneak in on the right side of the bubble would be to win 7 of 8 against OU, OSU, ISU and TCU, take 2 of 3 over UT, TTU and WVU in Bramlage, beat KU or BU at home, then steal a game at Austin or Morgantown to get to 11-7. Simple, right?

Or, you know, Kansas State could just go 18-0 and earn a 2 seed or something. If we’re going to dream, we might as well dream big.