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Tournament Thursday: Time for a run

If Kansas State’s going to make a move for a Big 12 title or a top seed in the NCAA tournament, they need to start now.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Kansas State
A deep tournament run would give Markquis Nowell a chance to challenge Doug Gottlieb’s single season Big 12 assists record.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Well, the allegedly easier part of the Big 12 schedule has finally arrived, and you could begin to see it in the last 4 minutes of Kansas State’s big win over TCU.

If the Cats can keep playing like that (and maybe cut down on some of the turnovers?) there’s a real possibility they could reel off a serious winning streak here. That’s likely what it would take to earn the Big 12 title and some of the other things Kansas State wants, such as a trip to Des Moines for the NCAA tournament and possibly even a No. 1 seed.

Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson will continue to be the leaders, but guys like Desi Sills and Tykei Greene have proven they could be X factors down the stretch. Kansas State’s defense seems to have figured some things out, especially when it comes to defensive rebounding, so that’s helpful.

This would be a good time to get hot, but then again, March would be an even better time. Both would be cool, too, of course. It still feels like Kansas State is in some sense playing with house money right now, given the expectations for this team and the knowledge they will be in the NCAA tournament.

Current status: Lock

Kansas State’s computer numbers continue to lag, as they’re sitting at 16th in the NET, although they finally cracked KenPom’s top 20 to get up to 19. These are encouraging signs, and it’ll be interesting to see how things go when the Cats aren’t traveling to play a ranked opponent every week.

The Bracket Project now includes 106 brackets and lists K-State as the top 4 seed. Esteemed commenter RazDad hasn’t updated his projections after since the 3 Big 12 games Wednesday night, but following the win over TCU he gave Kansas State a 3 seed with potential matchups against Furman, UC Santa Barbara, Princeton or Colgate. Kansas and Texas are on the 2 line, while Iowa State and Baylor are on the 3 line. West Virginia’s safely in as a 9 seed and Oklahoma State’s a little less comfortable as an 11.

Blogging the Bracket’s Chris Dobbertean gave Kansas State a 3 seed in Denver Tuesday morning with a matchup against Utah Valley, which is coached by former NBA champion and LA Laker Mark Madsen. Sounds fun. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi put Kansas State in Albany as a 4 seed with a first-round matchup against Hofstra, which is coached by former NBA champion and San Antonio Spur Speedy Claxton. Also fun.

CBS’s Jerry Palm last updated Monday and continues to rate K-State higher than everyone else, giving them a 2 seed a matchup against the Northwestern State team that stunned TCU back in November. SI’s Kevin Sweeney followed Lunardi’s lead and gave the Cats a 4 seed and a matchup against Hofstra in Wednesday’s update.

Nonconference play

Remember how Florida was looking good last week? Well, the Gators proceeded to lose a close one at Kentucky and then get absolutely obliterated at Alabama. So much for that. At least Nevada survived a trip to The Pit with a 77-76 win over New Mexico and can be found in most brackets.

This week I added the +/- numbers to show how teams have moved since last week. Remember that + is good and - is bad.

93-59 vs. UTRGV (12-12) NET 249 (+13) KenPom 254 (+17)
63-54 at California (3-20) NET 296 (+0) KenPom 252 (-5)
69-53 vs. UMKC (10-15) NET 256 (-13) KenPom 249 (+0)
77-57 vs. Rhode Island at Cayman Islands (8-15) NET 228 (+9) KenPom 214 (+8)
96-87 (OT) vs. Nevada at Cayman Islands (19-6) NET 31 (+3) KenPom 39 (+12)
61-59 vs. LSU at Cayman Islands (12-12) NET 139 (-1) KenPom 129 (-3)
64-76 at Butler (12-13) NET 113 (-3) KenPom 112 (-2)
55-50 vs. Wichita State (12-12) NET 128 (+4) KenPom 120 (-3)
81-64 vs. Abilene Christian (13-11) NET 190 (+25) KenPom 171 (+33)
98-50 vs. Incarnate Word (11-13) NET 339 (+1) KenPom 334 (+8)
71-56 vs. Nebraska at KC (11-14) NET 102 (-3) KenPom 104 (-3)
73-65 vs. Radford (16-9) NET 152 (+0) KenPom 148 (+0)
Jan. 28 vs. Florida (13-11) NET 46 (-5) KenPom 44 (-6)

A big win at California Baptist helped Abilene Christian make the biggest jump of the week and they’ll get another opportunity to move up quite a bit when they host Sam Houston (NET rank 60) on Saturday. Butler finally ended a long losing streak but all they did was beat St. John’s so it didn’t help a whole lot.

Nebraska snapped a four-game losing skid by beating Penn State, so the Huskers did a nice job of playing spoiler. Florida’s at a point where it definitely needs a win against either Arkansas or Kentucky later this month, and losses to teams like Vandy, Georgia, Ole Miss and LSU could be disastrous.

Last week

Texas is a very good team and Kansas State should have won that game. Both of these things can be true. Too many turnovers and some extremely frustrating offense down the stretch cost the Cats in front of a big crowd at Bramlage. The Longhorns didn’t play their best, especially in the first half, so this one was definitely there for the taking.

On the flip side, Kansas State clearly caught a break against a TCU team missing its creator on offense (Mike Miles) and playing with a clearly not 100% Eddie Lampkin, who gave the Cats all kinds of problems in Fort Worth. Either way, credit Markquis Nowell, Keyonate Johnson and bench spark Tykei Greene for powering through some struggles and finishing very strong in a much-needed home win.

This week

Kansas State opened a lot of eyes by winning its first two Big 12 road games at Texas and Baylor, wins that have only become more impressive since then. Sadly, the Cats have lost their last three road games, two of those by double digits.

Of course, all of those were against top 15 teams and this week starts K-State’s road tour of the Big 12’s unranked teams, starting with Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are by far the league’s worst team on paper and their injury issues haven’t really helped them get better recently. Yes, they did beat Iowa State, but Kansas and Baylor have already won in Lubbock (Texas plays there next Monday) so the Cats need to win this one to keep pace.

Oklahoma also looks very beatable at home after 3 straight conference losses overall and 2 straight Big 12 losses in Norman, with a third possibly coming Saturday against KU (hopefully not). Stopping big man Tanner Groves will be critical to taking down the Sooners.

Big 12 bubble teams

Just two weeks ago, Oklahoma State appeared to have the worst resume of the Big 12 bubble teams and didn’t look deserving of an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Now the Cowboys look like the best of the trio and might not even be in the bubble discussion anymore if not for bad early season losses to Southern Illinois in The Bahamas and Southern Illinois in Stillwater.

That’s what winning 3 straight in the Big 12 (plus a blowout of Ole Miss) will do for you. Kudos to Mike Boynton, Jr., for turning things around, but there’s still some work to be done.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma has taken a stunning nosedive since beating No. 2 Alabama by 24, highlighted (lowlighted?) by a 32-point loss at West Virginia last Friday. The Sooners have 3 more games left in a brutal 5-game stretch, and if they can’t win at least one they’re going to find themselves in serious trouble.

Along with that rout of OU, West Virginia also handed Iowa State its 6th loss is 8 true road games this season. The Mountaineers did exactly what they needed to do on their home court and it puts them in a great position to make the tournament — for now.

Oklahoma (12-12, 2-9) NET 63 (-5), KenPom 54 (-8)
Q1 Wins (4-8): vs. Florida (46) in Charlotte, at Texas Tech (74), vs. West Virginia (19), Alabama (2)
Road/Neutral Wins: vs. Nebraska/Seton Hall/Ole Miss in Florida, vs. Florida in Charlotte
Bad losses (Q2 or worse): vs. Sam Houston (60), at Villanova (88)
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 1-3

Oklahoma State (15-9, 6-5) NET 35 (+4), KenPom 31 (+1)
Q1 Wins (4-7): vs. West Virginia (19), vs. Iowa State (13), at Oklahoma (63), vs. TCU (24)
Road/Neutral Wins: at Oakland, vs. DePaul in The Bahamas, at Oklahoma
Bad losses: vs. Southern Illinois (114), vs. Virginia Tech (55) in Brooklyn
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 3-0

West Virginia (15-9, 4-7) NET 19 (+0), KenPom 15 (+4)
Q1 Wins (4-9): at Pitt (51), vs. Florida (46) in Portland, vs. TCU (24), at Texas Tech (74)
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

The Cowboys have a tough schedule this week with two big chances for another signature win, first at Iowa State and then vs. Kansas. Win one of those and OSU will be very close to punching its tournament ticket.

Oklahoma really needs to find a way to win in Lawrence or (hopefully not) against Kansas State in Norman. West Virginia has an extremely difficult road trip with Texas Saturday and then Baylor on Monday. At least it’ll be good practice for a similarly challenging road trip featuring Kansas on Feb. 25 and Iowa State on Feb. 27.

What K-State needs to do to earn a No. 1 seed

Listen, I’m not giving up hope on this yet. Sure, K-State blew a big opportunity by losing a 14-point lead at home to Texas, but on the bright side, Purdue, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Kansas, Marquette and Iowa State all lost, too.

I still believe winning the Big 12 regular season title should put any team in the 1 seed conversation, and at this point it looks likely the conference champion will have (at least) 5 losses. That means Kansas State must go 6-1 down the stretch. Not easy, but not impossible.

The easy answer would be to say the Cats should win out at home and then go 3-1 in games at Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. But to be honest, a surging Baylor in Manhattan (they’ve won 8 of 9 with the only loss in Austin) scares more more than any of those road trips.

Either way, if the Cats don’t win these next two road games their chances of finishing 13-5 are not good. KU and Baylor are the only teams to win five games in a row in league play this season, and no one’s made it to six.

It should also be noted that success in Kansas City would probably also come into play if the Cats can truly put themselves back into the 1 seed conversation. Two or three wins over quality Big 12 teams on a neutral court during conference tournament week could do wonders for a resume.