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Tournament Thursday: Bubble, we meet again

Kansas State’s barely hanging on in most brackets with the toughest part of the Big 12 schedule looming.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Iowa State
Leaning more on Arthur Kaluma might be a good way for Kansas State’s offense to make the improvements needed to reach the NCAA tournament.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

We’re a little more than seven weeks away from Selection Sunday and Kansas State is still very much in the conversation, so let’s talk about it.

To be honest, the way the Wildcats are playing lately doesn’t exactly inspire confidence against a brutal Big 12 schedule, and the metrics generally back up those feelings. That being said, this team tends to find a way to win a lot of close games and I think we all know by now it’s not smart to doubt Jerome Tang.

He clearly has this team playing defense at a high level. The offense, on the other hand, needs a considerable amount of work. They’re currently ranked 128th in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency and just haven’t found enough reliable scorers.

That’s why Kansas State is squarely on the bubble, perhaps on the wrong side of it after Wednesday’s loss at Iowa State. Fortunately, there’s still time and of course, the Big 12 offers plenty of opportunities for resume-building wins.

So let’s take a look at the Wildcats’ resume, what’s coming up, and what they need to do to make it into the bracket.

Current status: On the bubble

It’s a little weird to think the second-place team in the Big 12 isn’t easily on track to get into the tournament, but that’s where we’re at right now. Blame the losses to Miami and especially USC, both of whom have underperformed considerably since we saw them back in November.

Nebraska hasn’t exactly been great, either, but at least the Huskers beat No. 1 Purdue and have a winning record in conference play. Then there’s also the problem that Kansas State’s best nonconference win — over Villanova — doesn’t look nearly as good after those other Wildcats lost four of their last five games.

As a result of all that, the Cats are not even in 18 of The Bracket Project’s 81 brackets, and they average out to an 11 seed. Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology prior to the Iowa State game had KSU as one of the last four teams in, currently as an 11-seed with a play-in matchup against Ole Miss. I don’t want to have to care about those Tuesday/Wednesday games.

Esteemed commenter Razdad lists Kansas State as the first of his last four teams in, which would mean an 11-seed and a play-in game, unfortunately. Other Big 12 teams on his list include No. 1 seed Houston, No. 2 Kansas, No. 4 Baylor, 5 seeds for Oklahoma and Iowa State, a 6 seed for Brigham Young, No. 7 Texas Tech, No. 8 TCU and No. 11 Cincinnati (his last team in). An 11th (!) Big 12 team, Texas, is Razdad’s first team out.

Blogging the Bracket’s Chris Dobbertean gave Kansas State one of his last four spots as well, except he puts the Cats up against Virginia in an 11-seed play-in game. Please no. Over at CBS, Jerry Palm actually likes Kansas State a lot better than everyone else, giving them an 8-seed and a matchup with South Carolina in the bracket he updated on Monday. Let’s put Jerry on the selection committee.

Nonconference play

We already talked about the most notable opponents in Kansas State’s relatively weak nonconference schedule (ranked 166th by KenPom). Then there were also the surprisingly close games against mid-majors, especially the back-to-back OT wins over North Alabama and Oral Roberts. Not ideal.

Really, the 100-56 win over Central Arkansas and the 91-68 rout of South Dakota State were the only ones that could be considered blowouts, but hey, at least there are no bad losses. Still, the lack of convincing wins probably ends up hurting K-State some in the metrics, which may be why the Wildcats are ranked 61st by KenPom and 69th (not nice) in the NET rankings.

69-82 vs. USC in Las Vegas (8-11) NET 90 KenPom 79
83-75 vs. Bellarmine (4-16) NET 343 KenPom 307
91-68 vs. South Dakota State (11-9) NET 145 KenPom 146
73-70 (OT) vs. Providence in The Bahamas (13-6) NET 60 KenPom 46
83-91 vs. Miami in The Bahamas (13-6) NET 65 KenPom 63
100-56 vs. Central Arkansas (7-15) NET 320 KenPom 338
88-78 (OT) vs. Oral Roberts (8-11) NET 233 KenPom 222
75-74 (OT) vs. North Alabama (8-12) NET 273 KenPom 238
72-71 (OT) vs. Villanova (11-8) NET 36 KenPom 38
75-60 at LSU (11-8) NET 92 KenPom 81
46-62 vs. Nebraska (15-5) NET 47 KenPom 45
69-60 vs. Wichita State in KC (8-11) NET 144 KenPom 155
62-55 vs. Chicago State NET 289 KenPom 295

South Dakota State is off to a 4-1 start in conference play, so that’s something at least. But I’m afraid there’s not a lot of good news here, even though it is kind of funny that Wichita State has lost all 6 of its conference games thus far.

The Big 12 is tough enough this year that it is obviously very possible to earn a trip to the tournament through conference play alone and I can’t imagine a team with a winning league record getting left out (unless West Virginia somehow pulls that off, I guess). But Kansas State might be one of the few teams that could still be NIT-bound with only 8 or 9 wins.

Last week

K-State avoided a potentially disastrous home loss to Oklahoma State and then lost, as expected, at Iowa State. No harm done, even though the game in Ames felt like one the Cats could have stolen, much like the game in Lubbock earlier this month.

The fact is no one’s won at Iowa State and no one in the Big 12 has lost to Oklahoma State this season. It shouldn’t affect the Cats’ tournament chances too much either way that they couldn’t become the first to do either of those things.

This week

We’ve already mentioned the possibility of resume-building wins and they wouldn’t get much better than if Kansas State could somehow pull one off at Houston. The Cougars boast the best defense in the country by virtually every metric so the Cats would probably need to shoot jumpers well and come out on top at the end of a rock fight, but somehow it does feel possible. Maybe that’s just because I’m not super familiar with Houston yet.

Either way, a home date with No. 11 Oklahoma next Tuesday figures to be critical. This is the type of game Kansas State probably needs to win to start feeling better about its tournament chances, and they’ve already picked up a nice top 10 win against Baylor at home, so let’s hope they can defend Bramlage well once again.

Big 12 bubble teams

This early in the season it doesn’t seem worthwhile to go too deep into detail for this section. At the moment, 4 Big 12 teams (Kansas, Houston, Oklahoma, Baylor) feel like locks, another 3 (BYU, Texas Tech, Iowa State) seem solidly in the bracket, and I would say 3 others (TCU, Cincinnati and Texas) are joining Kansas State somewhere around the bubble.

There are, of course, only so many wins to go around, so it’s going to be interesting to see who gets knocked out along the way. Generally speaking, it feels like so long as you can win at home and beat Oklahoma State, West Virginia and UCF wherever you play them, your resume should remain respectable.

Easier said than done, as West Virginia and UCF have already picked up some upsets. It’s only a matter of time before OSU gets one, despite Mike Boynton’s best efforts.

I would like to point out Texas is building a very weird resume, featuring wins over Baylor at home as well as Cincy and Oklahoma on the road to go along with losses at West Virginia and vs. UCF at home. Who are the Longhorns?

What K-State needs to do to make the tournament

Can you believe that almost exactly one year ago this section was about how the Wildcats could earn a #1 seed? It’s true. Sadly, the situation is considerably more dire this season and I’m afraid with the upcoming schedule that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

At the end of the day, though, if Kansas State gets to 10 conference wins (that would mean 20-11 overall heading to KC) we should feel pretty good about their chances. So let’s break down what it would take to get there.

There are six home games and six road games left, so simply winning all the games at Bramlage would work. But that includes visits from No. 11 Oklahoma, No. 7 Kansas, No. 21 BYU and No. 23 Iowa State, so it won’t be easy.

Oklahoma State is a road game the Cats should win, and both Texas and Cincinnati are 1-2 at home so far in Big 12 play. Win two of those three games (Texas and Cincy would be Q1 wins) and K-State would be in a pretty good spot.

The scariest part is this upcoming schedule, which after Oklahoma includes a trip to Stillwater, KU at home and a road game at BYU. There are no easy games in the Big 12 but if Kansas State can’t get an upset and stumbles at Oklahoma State there will be a strong sense of desperation, which we do not want to see.

I remain hopeful Tang and his staff can figure things out to improve the offense (doing it this Saturday might be too much of an ask) and I think it’s good that the back half of the schedule looks a little friendlier, notwithstanding the annual trip to AFH. Expect some weird things to happen. They always do in this conference.