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Tournament Thursday: Good to be home

Kansas State’s closing in on a top 4 seed in Des Moines, but can the Cats finally pick up another road win?

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Kansas State
Keyontae and the Cats took advantage of a two-game homestand to get right for the stretch run.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas State’s clinched at least a .500 finish in the nation’s best conference and virtually assured of a top 6 seed, meaning no game in Kansas City until Thursday.

As remarkable as that would have seemed back in November (the biggest reason why Jerome Tang deserves to win Big 12 Coach of the Year) or even late December, it’s hard not to believe the Cats are capable of much more at this point. Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson might be the country’s best guard duo (yes I know KJ’s listed as a forward, shut up), the defense is rounding back into form and this team’s depth is far better than any of us could have imagined.

When playing in Bramlage, they’re nearly unbeatable. Away from home is a different story, since K-State will carry a 5-game road losing streak into Stillwater, but we’ll talk more about that later.

Whenever Kansas State makes the tournament, my rule in filling out my bracket is to pick KSU to win if I think there’s any realistic chance of that happening. I believe that led me to predict a K-State national championship in 2010, and if I’m following my logic, I just might have to do the same again this year. No, I won’t be putting any large amounts of money on that, but my thought is I would feel terrible if the Cats actually made it further than I projected in my bracket.

Either way, I think it’s still best to have the mindset that this team is playing with house money, since Tang’s so far ahead of schedule. An upset loss would still be painful, of course, but there’s no way it will feel as bad as, say, the last two times Kansas State won the Big 12 title and remember what happened.

Anyway, let’s move on, make like Craig Finn and stay positive.

Current status: Lock

Kansas State’s back in the top 20 according to the computers, up 8 spots to No. 18 in KenPom and somewhat strangely only two spots ahead of last week at No. 18 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. But the most encouraging news in this past week was the actual Selection Committee, in its annual Top 16 reveal, gave the Wildcats a 3 seed (12th overall) on Saturday even before they beat Iowa State and Baylor.

The Bracket Project now includes 114 brackets and Kansas State is the third 3 seed, one spot ahead of Iowa State. The Cats are likely to rise as more of those take into account the season sweep over Baylor. Esteemed commenter RazDad’s latest projections after Wednesday’s games put Kansas State as the top 3 seed, 9th overall. Other Big 12 teams in his bracket are No. 1 seed Kansas, No. 2 seed Texas, No. 2 seed Baylor, No. 4 seed Iowa State, No. 6 seed TCU, No. 10 seed Oklahoma State and No. 11 seed West Virginia. Texas Tech is lurking in the Second 4 Out.

Blogging the Bracket’s Chris Dobbertean last updated Tuesday and gave Kansas State a 3 seed in Des Moines and a game against Eastern Washington, which is a nightmare matchup for me because I live in Washington and the Eagles’ leading scorer, Steele Venters, is a kid I covered in high school. I don’t want to have to root against him, and I also don’t really want to see K-State facing the team that owns Division I’s longest winning streak, currently at 17 games.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi put Kansas State in Des Moines on Tuesday as a 3 seed matched up against UC Irvine. A chance at revenge could be fun, perhaps?

Over at CBS, Jerry Palm hasn’t updated since Monday when he put Kansas State as a 3 seed against UC Irvine in Columbus (he put Baylor in Des Moines for some reason). Kevin Sweeney at SI gave K-State a 3 seed with a first-round game against Iona. It would actually be a lot of fun to see the Cats beat Rick Pitino’s team.

Nonconference play

Nevada suffered a rough but not backbreaking loss at Utah State and Florida predictably lost all hope of earning an at-large bid by losing to Arkansas and Kentucky without Colin Castleton. Nebraska extended its win streak to three games by beating Maryland, so good for the Cornhuskers.

LSU’s losing streak finally ended at 14 games with a win over Vanderbilt. Meanwhile, California lost 2 games by a combined 72 points. No, really.

93-59 vs. UTRGV (14-14) NET 252 (+2) KenPom 252 (+2)
63-54 at California (3-24) NET 300 (-3) KenPom 258 (-6)
69-53 vs. UMKC (11-18) NET 276 (-15) KenPom 257 (+0)
77-57 vs. Rhode Island at Cayman Islands (8-18) NET 254 (-26) KenPom 214 (+0)
96-87 (OT) vs. Nevada at Cayman Islands (21-7) NET 32 (+0) KenPom 37 (+2)
61-59 vs. LSU at Cayman Islands (13-15) NET 153 (-8) KenPom 133 (-4)
64-76 at Butler (14-15) NET 120 (-10) KenPom 108 (+4)
55-50 vs. Wichita State (14-12) NET 125 (+7) KenPom 123 (-3)
81-64 vs. Abilene Christian (13-14) NET 193 (-6) KenPom 184 (-13)
98-50 vs. Incarnate Word (11-17) NET 348 (+1) KenPom 346 (-12)
71-56 vs. Nebraska at KC (14-14) NET 89 (+5) KenPom 97 (+7)
73-65 vs. Radford (17-13) NET 182 (-22) KenPom 155 (-7)
Jan. 28 vs. Florida (14-14) NET 55 (-4) KenPom 48 (-4)

Lots of teams going the wrong direction this week. What a terrible, terrible schedule. Hopefully it’s better next season. I have nothing else noteworthy to say.

Last week

It turns out all Kansas State needed to get right was a couple games at home. The Cats are now 15-1 in Bramlage for the first time since the 2013-14 season.

The turnaround began with an ugly but effective 61-55 win over Iowa State, featuring some great defense and some solid second-half adjustments, namely making shots. Oddly, just like K-State, the Cyclones won their first two Big 12 road games (at OU and at TCU) but haven’t won since, losing six straight (not even counting a really fun loss at Mizzou in late January).

Then Baylor visited and Kansas State became only the second team to complete a season sweep of the Bears in the last four seasons, joining 2021-22 Texas Tech. The Cats completely shut down Adam Flagler, Keyontae Johnson turned in another stellar 25-point performance, Markquis Nowell played the best game I’ve ever seen by someone who shot 2-of-11 from the field and once Baylor’s threes stopped falling KSU pulled away for a 75-65 win.

This week

Oklahoma State seems like a great opportunity to break a five-game win streak, considering the Cowboys have lost 3 in a row, all by double digits. Then again, we could have said the same thing before a trip to Oklahoma, who were coming off of 4 losses, all by double digits. That’s all to say, there are no guaranteed wins in this league, especially on the road.

K-State needs to bring lots of energy and find a way to limit turnovers once again, although matching the season-low of 7 vs. Baylor isn’t a necessity. Hitting shots would be nice and the opportunities should be there, since OSU has given up the highest opponent 3-point % of any Big 12 team in conference play. Also worth noting Oklahoma State has won all of its close games at home, so K-State would do well to take a comfortable lead early and hold on.

There are a lot of reasons Kansas State needs to win at home vs. Oklahoma next Wednesday, none more important than sending Nowell out the right way on Senior Day. A win would also give the Wildcats 16 wins at home for the first time since 2012-13 (the 13-14 team lost to Baylor on Senior Day).

Big 12 bubble teams

We can officially stop pretending Oklahoma is a bubble team. Even if the Sooners miraculously win out at Iowa State, at Kansas State and vs. TCU at home, they would probably need to win two, possibly three games in Kansas City. That’s not happening.

On the other hand, we no longer need to pretend for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are officially on the bubble after winning consecutive road games at West Virginia and Oklahoma to extend their win streak to 4 games. Quite a turn of events led by the return of Pop Isaacs and Fardaws Aimaq.

I really thought we might be able to take OSU off the bubble this week, in a good way, but the Cowboys got crushed on the road by a finally healthy TCU team and a West Virginia team desperately in need of a win. OSU’s probably still in for now, but not by a lot.

West Virginia (16-12, 5-10) NET 26 , KenPom 20
Q1 Wins (4-10): at Pitt (48), vs. TCU (24), at Texas Tech (59), vs. Iowa State (15)
Road/Neutral Wins: at Pitt, vs. Portland State at Portland’s Moda Center, vs. Florida in Portland.
Bad losses: None
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 2-2

Oklahoma State (16-12, 7-8) NET 41, KenPom 39
Q1 Wins (4-9): vs. West Virginia (26), vs. Iowa State (17), vs. TCU (24), at Iowa State (17)
Road/Neutral Wins: at Oakland, vs. DePaul in The Bahamas, at Wichita State, at Oklahoma, at Iowa State
Bad losses (Q2 or worse): vs. Southern Illinois, vs. UCF in the Bahamas, vs. Virginia Tech in Brooklyn
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 2-1

Texas Tech (16-12, 5-10) NET 59, KenPom 61
Q1 Wins (4-10): vs. Iowa State (17), vs. Kansas State (18), vs. Texas (9), at West Virginia (26)
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. Louisville in Maui, vs. Jackson State, at LSU, at Oklahoma, at West Virginia
Bad losses: vs. Ohio State in Maui, vs. Oklahoma
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 1-2

Winning at Oklahoma is no longer a Q1 win, which is too bad for Texas Tech and West Virginia. It also means Tech’s home loss to OU is a Q3 loss. These teams are all quite similar in their Q1 records now, but I assume West Virginia’s efficiency and a somewhat better nonconference is what’s giving them better computer numbers.

My dream is that Texas Tech will solidify an at-large bid by stunning KU in Lawrence next Tuesday. More realistically, the Red Raiders need to take care of business at home against TCU on Saturday.

Oklahoma State would probably be good with one of the two home games against Kansas State and Baylor, but things could get dicey if they lose both. West Virginia could also use one of two tough wins, first against KU at home and then at ISU for Big Monday.

What K-State needs to play in Des Moines

The win over Iowa State gave Kansas State the inside track to Des Moines and then Tuesday’s KSU win over Baylor combined with ISU getting blasted by Texas got us a step closer. It’s honestly hard to imagine at this point how the Cats don’t get a top 4 seed unless they totally collapse and lose four straight games.

Some bad news for K-State is that Iowa State gets a couple winnable home games against Oklahoma and West Virginia before ending the regular season with a difficult road trip to Baylor. Then, of course, there’s the fact the Cyclones will surely have a lot of fans travel to KC, where they’ve historically had a lot of success.

As a result, it would be really helpful if Kansas State can win one of the two remaining road games (at OSU, at WV) and of course the home game vs. Oklahoma, plus the first game in KC, which might even be against Iowa State. Do all that and the Cats should feel very good about their chances of getting a top 4 seed and a game in Des Moines.

If K-State could do something crazy like win out, a 2 seed is definitely still in play. Maybe a 1 if some other teams cooperate.