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Tournament Thursday: Is Kansas State built for a deep run?

Does Kansas State have what it takes to make a deep tournament run?

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Oklahoma State
Could Desi Sills be an X factor for Kansas State’s success in March?
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

What makes a team destined for NCAA tournament greatness?

It’s not an easy question to answer, largely because the tournament includes so much randomness there are no clear answers. Plus matchups matter, the game changes, and there just isn’t one single thing all Final Four teams share.

Of course, we’re asking this question to determine if K-State has what it takes, and the reality is it’s impossible to predict how the Cats will fare. There’s always the chance that they could run into a hot team on the wrong day, shoot poorly themselves, and go home early. Hopefully that won’t happen and it feels like this team’s more consistent than any K-State team in recent memory, but you just never know.

But to maybe get a better idea of Kansas State’s chances for a deep run, let’s take a look at some of the popular beliefs and trends for what brings success in the NCAA tournament.

A lot of people like to say “defense wins championships” and while there’s a reason it became a phrase, it’s hardly been an indisputable truth in March Madness lately. Of the last 5 champions, only one (Virginia in 2019) ranked among the top 8 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Meanwhile, all 5 of those champions ranked in the top 5 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings, including 3 in the top 2.

That’s not to say there aren’t defensively oriented teams that got close. 2019 Texas Tech comes to mind, and so does 2018 Loyola. This is good news for Kansas State, which has been much more consistent on the defensive end of the floor.

Quality guards are typically seen as critical and with good reason. Just look at the last two Wildcat teams to make the Elite 8, featuring Jacob Pullen/Denis Clemente and Kamau Stokes/Barry Brown, the latter of which took KSU that far without much help from Dean Wade. You’ll be hard-pressed to find two better than Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson. If Desi Sills can keep playing like he did Wednesday night against Oklahoma, look out.

Experience and NBA talent always seems to be helpful, which could be a little bit of a concern for Kansas State. Obviously Keyontae Johnson looks like a first-round pick, but beyond that no one is really there yet and while there is quite a bit of college basketball experience on the roster, there’s not actually a lot of tournament experience or even experience playing together, really.

A quality coach is useful, so Kansas State should be set in that department. Jerome Tang looks like the national coach of the year right now and has in fact already won the award from one publication that has already handed it out for some reason.

Overall it feels like the Cats aren’t necessarily the ideal team but they have what it takes, especially in a year where there are a lot of good teams but not really any that are truly elite. Just look at how many times #1 has lost this season. This tournament should be fairly open, so why not Kansas State?

Current status: Lock

We’re on the home stretch now and not surprisingly, a four-game win streak continues to boost Kansas State’s computer numbers, though not as much as you might think. The Cats are up to 16th in the NET rankings and still sit at 18th in KenPom, behind teams like Xavier, Arkansas and Creighton. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

The Bracket Project now includes 107 brackets and Kansas State is the top 3 seed, 2 spots behind Baylor and 2 behind Texas. Esteemed commenter RazDad’s latest projections after Wednesday’s games put Kansas State as the last 2 seed, 8th overall, with Eastern Washington, Vermont, Youngstown State and Colgate as possible opponents. Other Big 12 teams in his bracket are No. 1 seed Kansas, No. 2 seed Texas, No. 2 seed Baylor, No. 5 seed TCU, No. 6 seed Iowa State and No. 10 seed West Virginia, with Oklahoma State and Texas Tech both lurking.

Blogging the Bracket’s Chris Dobbertean last updated Tuesday and gave Kansas State a 2 seed in Des Moines and a game against Kennesaw State. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi put Kansas State in Des Moines on Tuesday as a 2 seed matched up against Vermont.

Over at CBS, Jerry Palm updated this morning and sent Kansas State to Des Moines as a 32 seed against UNC Asheville. Kevin Sweeney at SI gave K-State a 2 seed with a first-round game against the Penguins of Youngstown State.

Nonconference play

Nevada lost a game it probably should have won at Wyoming Monday but is probably still well-positioned for an at-large bid. Really I’m too busy this week to pretend any of this actually matters.

93-59 vs. UTRGV (15-16) NET 259 (-7) KenPom 249 (+3)
63-54 at California (3-26) NET 304 (-4) KenPom 262 (-4)
69-53 vs. UMKC (11-20) NET 299 (-23) KenPom 298 (-31)
77-57 vs. Rhode Island at Cayman Islands (9-20) NET 242 (+12) KenPom 234 (-20)
96-87 (OT) vs. Nevada at Cayman Islands (22-8) NET 34 (-2) KenPom 39 (-2)
61-59 vs. LSU at Cayman Islands (13-17) NET 155 (-2) KenPom 149 (-16)
64-76 at Butler (14-16) NET 129 (-9) KenPom 123 (-15)
55-50 vs. Wichita State (15-13) NET 114 (+11) KenPom 110 (+13)
81-64 vs. Abilene Christian (13-15) NET 203 (-10) KenPom 183 (+1)
98-50 vs. Incarnate Word (12-19) NET 346 (+2) KenPom 337 (+9)
71-56 vs. Nebraska at KC (15-15) NET 93 (-4) KenPom 96 (+1)
73-65 vs. Radford (18-13) NET 182 (+0) KenPom 184 (-29)
Jan. 28 vs. Florida (15-15) NET 60 (-4) KenPom 62 (-14)

OK, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about how awesomely hilarious it was that LSU blew a 19-point second half lead in an 81-76 home loss to Mizzou. Missouri has a chance to get the 3 seed in the SEX tournament! Dennis Gates and Jerome Tang are the best first-year coaches in America and I feel so incredibly lucky.

Last week

Kansas State didn’t play its best but still managed to end a 5-game road losing streak in Stillwater. Those are the kind of games great teams find a way to win, so it was extremely gratifying to see the Cats grind it out.

Then it was even more fun to see them hitting on all cylinders in an 85-69 rout of Oklahoma. Markquis Nowell was dishing, Keyontae Johnson was putting up points and Nae’Qwan Tomlin was dunking, so all was right in the Octagon of Doom on Senior Night.

This week

West Virginia’s won five of six in Morgantown and could really use one more win to feel safe about its at-large bid, so Saturday’s game won’t be easy. Then again, the Mountaineers lost to Kansas, Texas and Baylor at home, so this one’s definitely winnable for Kansas State. Just keep the turnovers low and try not to get into a foulfest, and they should be fine.

If K-State wins the Cats get the 2 seed in Kansas City, which would be great. I think it would be even better if Iowa State loses at Baylor and Oklahoma State wins at Texas Tech, vaulting the Cowboys up to the 2 seed to make Kansas State’s quarterfinal matchup against either OU or the reeling Cyclones.

If Kansas State loses, then things get a little more complex. That would put the Cats in a position to get the 2, 3 or 4 seed, although the 2 seed would require Baylor to lose at home to Iowa State, so that’s probably not happening. The one silver lining here would be that if Kansas State loses, Texas loses to KU and Oklahoma State loses at Texas Tech, then the Cats would face Iowa State on Thursday in KC. That seems like the friendliest matchup possible right now, in my humble opinion, and then the semifinal possibilites are basically the same as they would have been if KSU were the 2 seed except the jersey colors will be different.

Big 12 bubble teams

Oklahoma State’s managed to put itself squarely back on the bubble by losing five straight games. The Cowboys need at least one more win, probably two to feel safe. Sadly, Texas Tech couldn’t pull off the win at KU, so OSU’s trip to Lubbock feels like something close to an elimination game unless the loser makes a run in Kansas City.

West Virginia’s probably in the Dance so long as they win Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena thanks to the win at Iowa State, but the home game against Kansas State is a nice opportunity to improve their seed by a line or two.

West Virginia (17-13, 6-11) NET 24, KenPom 19
Q1 Wins (5-12): at Pitt (55), vs. TCU (20), at Texas Tech (50), vs. Iowa State (28)
Road/Neutral Wins: at Pitt, vs. Portland State at Portland’s Moda Center, vs. Florida in Portland, at Texas Tech, at Iowa State.
Bad losses: None
Head-to-Head against other B12 bubble teams: 2-2

Oklahoma State (16-14, 7-10) NET 47, KenPom 44
Q1 Wins (5-11): vs. West Virginia (24), vs. Iowa State (28), at Oklahoma (68), vs. TCU (20), at Iowa State (28)
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 (16-14, 5-12) NET 50, KenPom 50
Q1 Wins (5-12): vs. Iowa State (28), vs. Kansas State (16), vs. Texas (10), at West Virginia (24), at Oklahoma (68)
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 a Q1 win again, so that’s helpful. But right now it’s their nonconference struggles that are weighing them down, especially in the case of Oklahoma State. Southern Illinois is third in the Missouri Valley, while UCF and Virginia Tech are below .500 in their respective terrible conferences, the AAC and the AAC. How did you lose those games, Pokes?

Meanwhile, WV won all the games it was supposed to in the noncon (their only losses were to No. 5 Purdue in Portland and at No. 19 Xavier) and as a result, the Mountaineers could benefit from the Big 12’s unprecedented strength to become the first team in conference history to reach the Big Dance despite winning only a third of their games.

What K-State needs to play in Des Moines

This might already be locked up, honestly. Iowa State’s four-game losing streak has put them out of contention, even if they somehow find a way to win four in a row. Creighton has also been generous with its losses lately, dropping 3 of 4 before a 40-point rout of the doormat known as Georgetown on Wednesday.

Who else would the committee send to Des Moines? Let’s go through the top seeds, just for fun. Houston and Alabama are likely heading to Birmingham, Purdue’s going to Columbus and KU will obviously be the other team in Des Moines.

Baylor and Texas aren’t really close to any of the first-round sites, but it seems the prevailing wisdom suggests they’re going to Denver. It is slightly closer to Austin (and about the same to Waco) and certainly an easier place for fans to get to, I would think.

Out of UCLA, Arizona and Gonzaga, two will go to Gonzaga and then the third will just have to take a long trip to wherever is left. Tennessee’s likely heading to Greensboro and maybe Marquette is a threat for Des Moines? But they’re not that close and plus at least for now the Cats are solidly ahead of the Golden Eagles, despite their five-game win streak to clinch the Big East regular season title.

It still would probably be helpful if they lost early in New York. We’ll see what happens, but I do feel comfortable saying a win at West Virginia coupled with a win next Thursday should secure a trip to Des Moines for the Wildcats.