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Tournament Thursday: Dreaming of a one seed

This team’s success has put it in a very rare position, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Kansas State
Wouldn’t it be amazing if beating #2 Kansas at Bramlage doesn’t end up being the biggest win of this season?
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Several bracketologists put Kansas State on their one seed line this week.

Yes, you read that right. I can’t remember the last time that happened. I’m pretty sure Bruce Weber’s Big 12 title teams never reached that pinnacle, since they both had disappointing nonconference losses and then dropped 2 of their first 3 conference games, plus those weren’t the greatest years for the league as a whole.

But now the Cats have managed it thanks to an extraordinary 6-1 start against a front-loaded schedule, even though the Big 12 is perhaps as good as it has ever been. Oh, and they did it without their starting center. No matter what happens from here on out, that start was an incredible accomplishment.

Of course, it also raised expectations considerably, although for the most part K-State fans should be commended for recognizing Tuesday’s loss at Iowa State was in some ways just regressing to the mean. It was about time the Cats lost a close game, even if it’s a little painful to know that if both teams had just shot their usual season percentages from the free throw line, the result would have been different.

Then again, free throw shooting is another great thing about this year’s team. A game where K-State shoots 68% from the line feels like an anomaly, rather than an average performance for a team that shoots 74%. (Meanwhile, Iowa State shot 76% when they’re a 68% team for the season).

My main takeaway here is it’s totally fine to expect more from this team than we did a month ago and in fact I’m sure that’s what Coach Tang and the players want. At the same time, maybe pause to take a moment to enjoy where Kansas State is right now, because you never know how fleeting that feeling might be. Just ask UConn fans. Or Kansas fans.

Current status: Lock

It will never stop being great to see the word “Lock” in January. Even better, K-State’s stock continues to rise, especially because a lot of people haven’t updated their brackets since Tuesday.

The Bracket Project’s 2023 bracket matrix, featuring 80 brackets, all of which include Kansas State, have the Cats as the top 3 seed. I wonder if they’re just slow to catch up to results this time of year, because KU is still listed as the final 1 seed. Worth noting KSU is a 1 seed in eight brackets.

Esteemed commenter RazDad’s projections are back, and he gave Kansas State the top 2 seed, or 5th overall. Kansas follows immediately behind with the second 2 seed, Texas and Iowa State are both 3 seeds, TCU is a four seed and Baylor is his best 5 seed. Oklahoma and West Virginia are among RazDad’s First Four Out, with Oklahoma State no far behind in the Next Four Out.

Blogging the Bracket’s Chris Dobbertean put K-State as the third 1 seed with a matchup against UNC Asheville in his Tuesday bracket, although in our podcast that will probably be available Friday morning you’ll hear him say the Cats are dropping back to a 2 seed. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi gave K-State a 2 seed and a matchup vs. Samford in his Monday bracket, which also included the three Big 12 bubble teams (OU, OSU and WV) as his first three teams out.

Over on CBS, Jerry Palm gave K-State a 1 seed and a game against Longwood on Monday. NCAA analyst Andy Katz created a bracket Sunday, giving the Cats a 2 seed and a first-round game against Milwaukee.

Nonconference play

Can we take a second to talk about how terrible LSU has been playing lately? The Tigers have lost 7 in a row and these are the results of their last 4 games: 60-40 at Arkansas, 77-56 home to Tennessee, 67-49 home to Auburn and 106-66 (!) at Alabama. What happened? If Texas Tech loses in Baton Rouge on Saturday, the Red Raiders might just want to end the season immediately.

K-State’s noncon schedule somehow dropped to 262nd out of 363 Division I teams according to KenPom, which doesn’t really make any sense. The weak schedule is probably a big reason why KenPom has the Cats 26th and the NET rankings put them 17th.

93-59 vs. UTRGV (10-11) NET 284 KenPom 296
63-54 at California (3-17) NET 288 KenPom 239
69-53 vs. UMKC (8-13) NET 244 KenPom 244
77-57 vs. Rhode Island at Cayman Islands (7-13) NET 230 KenPom 208
96-87 (OT) vs. Nevada at Cayman Islands (16-5) NET 34 KenPom 48
61-59 vs. LSU at Cayman Islands (12-8) NET 133 KenPom 106
64-76 at Butler (11-11) NET 102 KenPom 100
55-50 vs. Wichita State (10-10) NET 142 KenPom 131
81-64 vs. Abilene Christian (10-10) NET 243 KenPom 228
98-50 vs. Incarnate Word (8-12) NET 347 KenPom 351
71-56 vs. Nebraska at KC (10-11) NET 100 KenPom 99
73-65 vs. Radford (12-9) NET 158 KenPom 148
Jan. 28 vs. Florida (12-8) NET 46 KenPom 41

Butler is also in freefall, having lost three straight by 21, 30 and 21 points, and Nebraska dropped below .500 with a pair of losses. On the plus side, Florida is on a hot streak with five wins in its last six games, including an 81-60 rout of South Carolina on Wednesday. After K-State Saturday, the Gators get No. 4 Tennessee, surging Kentucky and No. 2 Alabama, so we’ll find out just how improved Florida is very soon.

Last week

We already talked about the Iowa State loss and the home win over Texas Tech counts merely as taking care of business. The Red Raiders have very clearly solidified their spot as the Big 12’s worst team, so it’s actually a bit alarming that K-State trailed for a lot of that game. Either way, it’s a win and that’s all that really matters.

This week

K-State’s last-ever game in the Big 12/SEC challenge could be interesting beyond the Keyontae Johnson storyline, but it’s one the Wildcats can’t really afford to lose if they’re interested in a 1 seed. Plus, it would just be sad if this was how the undefeated season at Bramlage Coliseum ended.

Of course, there’s always the concern of whether Kansas State will be looking ahead to Tuesday’s showdown at Allen Fieldhouse, but hopefully the Wildcats learned their lesson after what happened at TCU before the Jayhawks visited Manhattan. Either way, KU’s going to be very hungry for revenge and looking to end a 3-game Big 12 losing streak, so this one will be a difficult one to win.

Big 12 bubble teams

The gap between the Big 12’s top 6 teams and its three bubble teams feels a lot bigger than the two games separating Kansas and Oklahoma State in the standings. So far this season, the bubble teams are a combined 2-14 against the top 6, with the only wins being West Virginia beating TCU in Morgantown and Oklahoma State topping Iowa State in Stillwater.

All three bubble teams still really need to pick up some more wins, so this week’s SEC/Big 12 challenge actually presents some interesting opportunities. Oklahoma will be playing with nothing to lose at home against No. 2 Alabama, while Oklahoma State hosting Ole Miss and West Virginia hosting Auburn both have far more to lose than they have to gain.

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 (11-9, 2-6) NET 65, KenPom 52
Q1 Wins (2-7): at Texas Tech (73), 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 (51), at Villanova (89)
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 1-1

Oklahoma State (10-8, 2-4) NET 47, KenPom 38
Q1 Wins (2-7): vs. West Virginia (24), vs. Iowa State (9)
Road/Neutral Wins: at Oakland, vs. DePaul in The Bahamas,
Bad losses: vs. Southern Illinois (104), vs. Virginia Tech (52) in Brooklyn.
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 2-0

West Virginia (12-8, 2-6) NET 24, KenPom 21
Q1 Wins (2-8): at Pitt (63), vs. TCU (13), at Texas Tech (73)
Road/Neutral Wins: at Pitt, vs. Portland State at Portland’s Moda Center (This barely counts), vs. Florida in Portland, at Texas Tech.
Bad losses: None
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 0-2

Oklahoma State got a signature win at home vs. Iowa State, while Oklahoma’s computer rankings plummeted after a 79-52 loss at TCU. The Sooners need to regroup before Bedlam in Norman next Wednesday, or they could get themselves into some serious trouble.

West Virginia got the road win it needed in Lubbock and will face a much tougher road test next Tuesday in Fort Worth against a team the Mountaineers beat in Morgantown. Still, the computers seem to love the West Virginia, which could make them a very interesting case on Selection Sunday.

What K-State needs to do to earn a 1 seed

It’s probably too early to talk about this, so let’s keep it short and simple. The Big 12 regular season winner almost certainly gets a #1 seed, and it seems likely no one’s going to lose less than four games.

After the game at Kansas on Jan. 31, the Wildcats are done with road games against the other ranked teams in the Big 12. That’s huge. Yes, there are still some tough home games left, notably against TCU, Texas and Iowa State.

But defend the homecourt at Bramlage, go 3-1 on the road against Tech, OU, OSU and West Virginia, and the Cats are probably a 1 seed even with a loss at Allen Fieldhouse. Then again, the way KU’s playing right now, I see no reason why we should assume Kansas State can’t pick up a win there, too.

These next four games will be critical, and yes I’m including Florida because of how well they’re playing lately. Following the trip to Lawrence, K-State hosts TCU and Texas for two huge games against a UT team that has not beaten any great teams on the road and a TCU team that has already won at Baylor and Kansas.

A home loss might happen, and maybe that would even be OK especially if paired with a deep run in KC. Lots of possibilities here, which is an incredible thing to say about Kansas State and a 1 seed. Can’t wait to find out what happens.