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Tournament Thursday: Care to dance?

For the first time in almost four years, Kansas State is virtually a lock to make the NCAA tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Kansas State
There’s little doubt Keyontae Johnson is playing like a first team all-Big 12 player through the first third of the league schedule.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the thing: I thought about writing this post a week ago, but then I remembered what happened the last time I did that.

Kansas State had just worked its way back into the bubble conversation by winning 4 of 5 games last February, and I was really excited. Then the Cats promptly lost six straight games to miss the postseason entirely and bring an ugly end to Bruce Weber’s rollercoaster tenure in Manhattan.

So yeah, this time I wanted to make absolutely sure there would be no way to destroy our hopes and dreams. A win over Kansas to improve to 16-2 feels like enough to confidently state this is a tournament team.

At the moment, it looks like a team no one will want to face in March. They’ve got the necessary ingredients to make a tourney run, starting with experienced talent on the perimeter and great coaching, although admittedly the defense could still use a little work.

That being said, this team of mostly newcomers still has plenty of time to evolve and become even better. I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s ahead.

In case you’re new here, 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 a top 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Yes, really.

Current status: Lock

Listen, I don’t want to hear any arguments about how K-State could theoretically miss the tournament unless you can also provide a precedent of a major conference team that won 16 of 18 games to reach the top 15 in January and then didn’t hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Good luck, haters.

Here in reality, the question isn’t whether the Cats will make the tournament, it’s where they’ll end up in the bracket. The Bracket Project’s 2023 bracket matrix, featuring 76 brackets, all of which include Kansas State, says KSU is the last 3 seed, and keep in mind most of those projections were probably made before the biggest win of Jerome Tang’s head coaching career.

Blogging the Bracket’s Chris Dobbertean (who will be on the podcast next week to talk about his Florida Gators and probably his bracket) said Tuesday morning Kansas State is a 4 seed facing Oral Roberts in Des Moines, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi gave the Jayhawks his overall #1 seed and put the Wildcats as a 4 seed facing Princeton in Albany.

Over on CBS, Jerry Palm gave K-State a 4 seed and put them up against Liberty, presumably just to make me angry. Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Sweeney created his first bracket of the season Wednesday and put the Wildcats in as a 3 seed facing Princeton.

Nonconference play

Let’s just be real here because there’s no getting around it, Kansas State played its worst nonconference schedule in recent memory. Currently 0 of the 13 teams are in The Bracket Project’s field of 68, although Nevada is very close and 34th in the NET rankings, so that counts as a solid Q1 win for now.

Ken Pomeroy ranks K-State’s noncon schedule 242nd out of 363 Division I teams. That might be why the Cats lag behind at 26th in those rankings compared to 15th in the NET rankings. Thankfully, scheduling is something Coach Tang has vowed to improve.

93-59 vs. UTRGV (10-8) NET 259 KenPom 281
63-54 at California (3-16) NET 260 KenPom 222
69-53 vs. UMKC (7-12) NET 230 KenPom 234
77-57 vs. Rhode Island at Cayman Islands (6-12) NET 236 KenPom 211
96-87 (OT) vs. Nevada at Cayman Islands (15-5) NET 33 KenPom 56
61-59 vs. LSU at Cayman Islands (12-6) NET 122 KenPom 106
64-76 at Butler (11-9) NET 87 KenPom 93
55-50 vs. Wichita State (9-8) NET 139 KenPom 122
81-64 vs. Abilene Christian (9-10) NET 248 KenPom 228
98-50 vs. Incarnate Word (6-12) NET 350 KenPom 353
71-56 vs. Nebraska at KC (10-9) 88 NET KenPom 92
73-65 vs. Radford (11-9) NET 163 KenPom 157
Jan. 28 vs. Florida (10-8) NET 51 KenPom 44

This schedule looked bad when January started and sadly, it has mostly gotten worse since. This month, Rhode Island is 2-3, LSU is 0-5, Butler is 3-3, Wichita State is 2-1, Nebraska is 2-3 and Florida is 3-2. Even Nevada’s lost 2 of its last 3 after a surprising 77-62 loss at Boise State Tuesday night.

Thank goodness K-State only lost one nonconference game and the weakness of that schedule won’t matter too much so long as the Cats keep beating teams in the country’s best league.

Last week

Not much needs to be said here, since we all know the Kansas State stayed undefeated at home by knocking off KU on Tuesday. Before that, the Wildcats just looked off as they stumbled at TCU, the only team to outrun KSU all season.

Road losses will happen to everyone and it’s all about how you bounce back and defend your homecourt. No problems here.

This week

Every game in the Big 12 qualifies as a Q1 opportunity, or at the very least Q2. That’s barely true on Saturday, with Texas Tech sitting at 72nd as it heads into Manhattan.

However, the Red Raiders are now just about fully healthy and 5 of their 6 Big 12 losses came by 7 points or less. This is not a gimme. Those don’t exist in this conference.

If K-State holds serve at Bramlage, we could be looking at a top 10 matchup next Tuesday in Ames. A win over Iowa State could vault K-State up to a 2 seed and of course would be huge for the Cats’ hopes of winning another Big 12 title.

Big 12 bubble teams

I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading this the Big 12 is the best conference in America, and it’s not particularly close. All 10 teams are ranked in the top 63 in KenPom and top 72 in the NET rankings. That’s remarkable.

And yet, if you take out Texas Tech those numbers become top 38 and top 56, so it’s clear the Red Raiders are the one team that doesn’t belong in the NCAA tourney conversation, no matter what Malik Boynton thinks. Meanwhile, an astonishing six teams have a very strong case for a 4 seed or better right now.

So that leaves us with only 3 bubble teams, and they’re all in desperate need of some more quality wins at the moment. Fortunately, they’ll get plenty of opportunities.

Keep in mind Q1 wins are homes games vs. teams ranked 1-30, neutral games vs. 1-50 and road games vs. 1-75. Bad losses for this evaluation are Q2 games or worse. Numbers in parentheses are NET rankings

Oklahoma (11-7, 2-4) NET 54, KenPom 38
Q1 Wins (2-5): at Texas Tech (74), vs. West Virginia (24)
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. Nebraska/Seton Hall/Ole Miss in Florida, vs. Florida in Charlotte
Bad losses (Q2 or worse): vs. Sam Houston (47), at Villanova (101)
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 1-1

Oklahoma State (10-8, 2-4) NET 46, KenPom 34
Q1 Wins (1-6): vs. West Virginia (24)
Road/Neutral Wins: at Oakland, vs. DePaul in The Bahamas,
Bad losses: vs. Southern Illinois (106), vs. Virginia Tech (59) in Brooklyn,
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 2-0

West Virginia (11-7, 1-5) NET 24, KenPom 23
Q1 Wins (1-7): at Pitt (52), vs. TCU (29)
Road/Neutral Wins: at Pitt, vs. Portland State at Portland’s Moda Center (This barely counts), vs. Florida in Portland.
Bad losses: None
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 0-2

Perhaps the most disappointing thing here is both Oklahoma teams have home nonconference losses to mid-majors they might end up regretting. At least West Virginia’s noncon loss (Purdue, Xavier) are very respectable. West Virginia and Oklahoma lost Q1 wins when Florida dropped to 51st overnight, but obviously that could come back soon since both games were at neutral sites.

That being said, the Mountaineers have the least impressive conference resume so far, even after a desperately needed win over TCU Wednesday night. Texas visits Morgantown Saturday, followed by a trip to Lubbock and then a home matchup vs. Auburn, so this is a real chance for WV to put together a winning streak.

Oklahoma’s looked largely competent in conference play, but a difficult stretch of Baylor in Norman, followed by a trip to TCU and then a visit from possibly the SEC’s best team, Alabama, could put the Sooners in a tough spot by the time the Cowboys visit for Bedlam Part Deux on Feb. 1. OSU’s schedule also looks quite unfriendly with Iowa State coming to Stillwater Saturday followed by a trip to Texas, although at the least the Pokes get Ole Miss at home for the Big 12/SEC challenge.

It’s important to remember the margins for error are extremely thin in this conference when it comes to wins and losses, so these are three good teams capable of beating just about anyone on any given day. They just need to start showing a little more consistency.

What K-State needs to do to earn a top 4 seed

OK, we’re doing this because it’s what Coach Tang and his team deserve right now. But we should probably start by mentioning this section is all wild speculation because there are so many variables with nearly two full months of regular season/conference tournament basketball remaining.

That disclaimer aside, it’s impossible to imagine the Big 12 regular season champion not getting a top 4 seed. 3 of the past 4 Big 12 champions (2020-21 Baylor excluded for pandemic scheduling reasons) have lost at least 4 games, so let’s set that as an arbitrary goal.

The simplest path would be going unbeaten at home and then going 3-3 at Iowa State, Kansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and West Virginia. That seems quite doable. Going 4-2 on the road to offset a home loss somewhere also feels possible.

If we’re being a little more generous and probably realistic, 5 or 6 league losses puts Kansas State in great shape to earn a top 4 seed. If the Cats can beat Tech and then go 2-2 over a difficult upcoming four-game stretch in the Big 12 (at ISU, at KU, vs. UT, vs. TCU) the schedule actually looks somewhat friendly (it’s all relative) in February/early March. 4-3 really shouldn’t be an issue and 5-2 seems well within reach.

Then if we really want to look too far ahead, the Cats would have more opportunities for quality wins in KC. Ideally while wearing light jerseys.