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Tournament Thursday: Back on the Bubble

Let’s have a discussion about Kansas State’s very realistic tournament chances! It feels so good.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Iowa State
Should making the NCAA tournament be enough for Bruce to keep his job? Let’s save that discussion for another day.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Wow. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? I believe the last time I wrote one of these posts was March 14, 2019, three days before Selection Sunday.

Kansas State, of course, easily made it into that NCAA tournament and then....well, I can’t remember what happened. Doesn’t matter.

Anyway, there will be nothing easy for K-State when it comes to making the dance this year, as the strength of the Big 12 is both a gift and a curse. The Cats have played 6 Big 12 games this season decided by 3 points or less, going 2-4, and other than a somewhat comfortable 12-point win at TCU, their biggest win (62-51 over Texas Tech) only happened because they ended the game on a 12-2 run.

The saddest part of all this is if Kansas State could have only held on to what should have been an insurmountable late lead at home against TCU and beaten a weak Ole Miss that is now 3-10 in SEC play, we’d all be feeling great about KSU’s postseason chances. And just imagine if the Cats had held onto double-digit second-half leads at West Virginia and home against Kansas!

Alas, here we are, hoping this improved play during 4 wins in 5 games can continue over the last five games of the season. I really don’t know what to expect from a Bruce-coached team at this point, so don’t ask me to make predictions.

Just in case you’re new here, or you don’t remember how this works, I’ll be taking a quick look at K-State’s tourney chances as of now according to the people who know a lot more about this than me. Next, I’ll take a closer look at the Wildcats’ past opponents, then we’ll look at the other Big 12 bubble teams, and finally I’ll try to guess what K-State needs to do in its remaining schedule to earn an NCAA tournament berth.

That’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started.

Current status: Wrong side of the bubble

The Bracket Project shows Kansas State in 9 out of 115 brackets, making the Cats the 10th team out at the moment. It’s worth noting some of those brackets probably haven’t been updated since the win over West Virginia and possibly even the win at Iowa State. Blogging the Bracket’s Chris Dobbertean of SB Nation updated on Tuesday and noted the win over West Virginia “pushed the Wildcats into the bubble crowd” but didn’t see fit to put them in his first 8 teams out.

Esteemed commenter Razdad agreed to put out projections this week and he sees the Cats as the 8th team out right now, just behind Mississippi State and Belmont. As for other Big 12 teams, he lists Kansas and Baylor as 2 seeds, Texas Tech as a 3 seed (prior to Wednesday’s win), Texas as a 5, TCU and Iowa State on the 9 line, and Oklahoma just sneaking in as a 12 seed.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi last updated Tuesday and put K-State as his 6th team out just behind Rutgers (who beat Illinois Wednesday) and ahead of Virginia Tech. His colleague John Gasaway lists K-State as one of 4 Big 12 teams with “work to do” in the latest Bubble Watch. Jerry Palm of CBS has West Virginia but not Kansas State or Oklahoma among his bubble teams, which doesn’t make much sense. Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Sweeney hasn’t updated since Monday so it’s more understandable that he has the Mountaineers in the Next Four Out but not the Wildcats.

Nonconference play

Kansas State has the worst nonconference resume of any tournament-eligible Big 12 team and I don’t think it’s particularly close. The Cats played the 271st best overall noncon schedule according to KenPom, but before you complain too much about that let me point out it’s still better than the schedules of TCU, Iowa State, Texas and Texas Tech.

The real problem was the results. Specifically, going 2-4 against teams with a pulse, lowlighted by that at Ole Miss and a win at Nebraska that won’t impress anyone. The win over Wichita State technically counts as a Q1 win but the Shockers, at 74th in the NET, are literally the second-worst possible team to beat for a Q1 win.

The remaining six wins all fall solidly in the Q4 category, meaning they don’t count for much and a loss would have been atrocious. Most of those came against teams not even in the top 300. Ugh. By the way, if you need a refresher on how the NET rankings work and what these Q (quadrant) numbers mean, you can check out this explainer.

67-57 vs. Florida A&M (10-14) NET 314 KenPom 306
79-64 vs. Omaha (4-22) NET 347 KenPom 344
64-72 vs. Illinois (18-7) in KC NET 14 KenPom 15
64-72 vs. Arkansas (20-6) in KC NET 29 KenPom 22
84-42 vs. North Dakota (6-21) NET 341 KenPom 336
71-43 vs. Albany (10-15 with a game Wednesday) NET 274 KenPom 280
65-59 at Wichita State (13-9) NET 74 KenPom 83
63-64 vs. Marquette (17-9) NET 31 KenPom 32
82-64 vs. Green Bay (4-22) NET 345 KenPom 342
67-58 at Nebraska (7-18) NET 174 KenPom 169
74-59 vs. McNeese State (10-16) NET 302 KenPom 301
69-71 at Oklahoma (14-11) NET 39 KenPom 29
57-70 vs. Texas (19-7) NET 15 KenPom 14
68-71 at West Virginia (14-11) NET 68 KenPom 64
57-60 vs. TCU (16-7) NET 57 KenPom 61
62-51 vs. Texas Tech (20-6) NET 11 KenPom 13
66-65 at Texas (19-7) NET 15 KenPom 14
75-78 vs. Kansas (21-4) NET 8 KenPom 6
49-74 at Baylor (21-5) NET 6 KenPom 4
56-67 at Ole Miss (12-14) NET 114 KenPom 108
71-68 vs. Oklahoma State (12-13) NET 52 KenPom 49
75-63 at TCU (16-7) NET 57 KenPom 61
60-75 vs. Baylor (21-5) NET 6 KenPom 4
75-69 at Iowa State (17-9) NET 42 KenPom 41
78-73 vs. West Virginia (14-11) NET 68 KenPom 64

Kansas State has obviously been a better team with its full roster, and we perhaps underestimated some of those absences early on in Big 12 play. Beating TCU and Texas on the road while losing to them at home feels strange, but it actually might be a good thing when the committee’s looking at KSU’s resume.

It sure would be helpful if Wichita State would play a little better and maybe they can beat injury-riddled Houston at home Saturday, but at least Arkansas, Illinois and Marquette are all ranked or very close to it, with Marquette surpassing expectations thus far. I wish Bruce could do a better job of scheduling teams in the 150-250 range instead of the 250-350 range, but I understand that can be somewhat difficult to predict.

Last week

It wasn’t always pretty, but Kansas State played good basketball for long enough to pick up key wins at Iowa State and over West Virginia at home. A lack of offensive firepower for both of those teams certainly helped the Cats, but they stayed poised, took advantage and mostly finished strong.

Both of those wins were absolutely critical, and suddenly I’ve gone from openly laughing at Saturday’s announcers for calling K-State a bubble team to writing this post. That’s how fast things can change when you play in the Big 12 and literally every game is a resume booster.

Big 12 bubble teams

You could argue TCU is too good for this bubble discussion, and I might even have agreed before their painful home loss to Iowa State. But combine that with a brutal schedule down the stretch (@UT, Tech at home, KU twice) and it’s not hard to imagine a 6-12 or 7-11 conference record, which would spell big trouble for the Horned Frogs.

One other note: I’m using a harsher than usual definition of a “bad loss” because these teams are all good enough they don’t really lose to bad teams. Well, except Oklahoma, but that was just the one time.

Kansas State (14-11, 6-7) NET 62, KenPom 55
Q1 Wins (5-9): at Wichita State (NET 74), vs. Texas Tech (11), at Texas (15), at TCU (57), at Iowa State (42)
Road/Neutral Wins: at Wichita State, at Nebraska, at Texas, at TCU, at Iowa State
Bad losses (Q2 or worse): vs. Oklahoma (39), vs. TCU (57), at Ole Miss (114),
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 2-2

TCU (16-7, 5-6) NET 57, KenPom 61
Q1 Wins (4-5): at Kansas State (62), at Iowa State (42), vs. LSU (16), at Oklahoma (39)
Road/Neutral Wins: Pepperdine in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., Texas A&M in Houston, at Georgetown, at Kansas State, at Iowa State, at Oklahoma
Bad losses: vs. Santa Clara (72) in San Juan Capistrano, vs. Kansas State (62), vs. Iowa State (42)
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 4-2

Oklahoma (14-12 NET 39, KenPom 29
Q1 Wins (3-9): vs. Arkansas (29) in Tulsa, at West Virginia (68), vs. Texas Tech (11)
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. East Carolina in Conway, S.C., vs. Indiana State in Conway, at UCF, vs. Arkansas in Tulsa, at West Virginia
Bad losses: vs. Utah State (65) in Conway, vs. Butler (119), vs. TCU (57)
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 2-2

Iowa State (16-9) NET 42, KenPom 41
Q1 Wins (8-7): vs. Xavier (23) in Brooklyn, vs. Memphis (40) in Brooklyn, at Creighton (71), vs. Iowa (19), vs. Texas Tech (11), vs. Texas (15), at Oklahoma State (52), at TCU (57)
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. Xavier in Brooklyn, vs. Memphis in Brooklyn, at Creighton, at Oklahoma State, at TCU
Bad losses: vs. TCU (57), vs. Kansas State (62)
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 1-3

It’s pretty wild that half of Iowa State’s wins are of the Q1 variety, and the Cyclones are 0-2 in Q2 games. The committee might not know what to do with ISU’s resume, although it’s worth noting they have the opposite situation of TCU as a relatively easy season-ending schedule could allow them to play their way into lock status. Last night’s win at TCU sure helped.

Oklahoma seems to be in a very precarious spot after blowing yet another opportunity for a somewhat elusive Q1 win on Tuesday. The Sooners are definitely in trouble if they can’t steal one of their next two games in Ames or Lubbock.

TCU got probably the most important Big 12/SEC challenge win over #19 LSU, and it’s worth noting they’re done playing the other bubble teams already with a respectable record thanks to an OU sweep. Also, it’s worth noting Mike Miles was out due to injury for the first 2 bad losses and he was MIA Tuesday against Iowa State with just 3 points on 0-9 shooting from the field.

It’s also worth noting a focus on wins and losses may leave many people wondering why TCU and K-State lag so far behind OU in the computer numbers. The answer lies in some dismal efficiency numbers, especially on offense, and it’s important to remember those computer rankings are highly regarded because they are generally good at predicting how well teams will fare based on past results.

This week

It’s easy to forget Kansas State won three games in a row at Oklahoma State before the nightmarish past two seasons, so this seems like as good a time as any to start a new streak. Unfortunately, Oklahoma State did not respond to the NCAA’s completely ridiculous and unfair punishment by rolling over to help the Big 12 can get as many teams into the possible, so this one won’t be easy.

The Cats picked up a narrow win in Manhattan by holding Avery Anderson and Isaac Likekele to a combined 13 points, which is not an easy thing to do. But the Cowboys have plenty of other weapons, too, and they’re very athletic, so K-State must bring the defensive intensity and rebound well from the jump or this one could get away.

After that it’s off to the hellscape that is Allen Fieldhouse, where the Cats haven’t won since 2006. Meanwhile, KU is looking like they’re starting to figure out how to play defense, which is absolutely terrifying given how good they are at offense. So yeah, I’m not optimistic.

1-1 this week would be great. 2-0 would be almost miraculous.

What K-State needs to do to make the tourney

To me, this is pretty simple with five games remaining in the regular season. Win at OSU, then hold serve at home against Iowa State and Oklahoma. Even with losses to Kansas, Texas Tech and a first-round loss (probably to Texas or Tech) in KC, I think the Cats would earn a bid.

Of course, nothing with Bruce is ever simple, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see K-State do something crazy like hand Tech its first home loss and lose at Bramlage again. Honestly, that would probably be better for the resume, all other things being equal.

If the Cats go 0-3 on the road and 2-0 at home the rest of the way, they might need a win in KC. At least in that scenario we could be almost assured of a matchup with Texas or Tech, which would mean an immediate chance at another very high-quality win to provide that last needed boost.

Still, for obvious reasons, I’d rather not get to that point.

That’s probably enough for me this week. Maybe next week I’ll also include an upcoming schedule for some of the other bubble teams, so you know who to root against. Let me know if that’s something you would like to see.