Tournament Thursday: Is K-State a bubble team again?

Kansas State doesn’t look like a tournament team at the moment, but there are some reasons to believe the ‘Cats could still find a path to the Big Dance.

Back in early December, I was talking to my sister about staying with her in Tulsa to catch Kansas State during the NCAA tournament’s first weekend. By the time West Virginia opened up a 42-21 lead early in the second half Wednesday night, I’d decided not to write this post.

Then the ‘Cats pulled off the biggest comeback in program history, so here we are.

Don’t make the mistake of believing this win will suddenly change the fortunes of what has recently become a dreadful season for Kansas State. That’s not to say the ‘Cats can’t get hot and go on a win streak, but it would be a mistake to believe in momentum from game to game, especially for a Bruce Weber-coached team.

Sure, there are examples of improbable win streaks starting with a much-needed victory, such as the 10 straight in 2013-14 that began with an ugly 52-38 win over Long Beach St. following appalling losses to Charlotte and Georgetown in Puerto Rico. Or the three straight wins in 2016-17 to lift K-State into the tournament after it had lost 8 of 10 and vanquished nearly all hope.

But there have also been those moments when what we thought was a season-changing victory turned out to be false hope, such as the improbable 56-54 win at No. 2 Baylor in the middle of that dreadful 2016-17 run. Or how about K-State’s stunning OT win over No. 7 KU in 2013-14, which the ‘Cats followed up with a heartbreaking 2OT loss to a bad Baylor team en route to losing 6 of the last 9 games?

The point is, don’t expect one brilliant half to magically fix everything. There are still serious problems with this team, notably an alarming lack of consistent scorers, no clear offensive identity, and absolutely awful free throw shooting (63% vs. WVU to improve to 62.5% on the season).

Worst of all, things are about to get much tougher. K-State plays 6 of its next 10 games against ranked teams, including the next 4. Only 4 of the next 11 games are at home, and all of those teams coming to Bramlage are in the Top 25.

In other words, on paper at least, West Virginia is by far the easiest game the ‘Cats will play until hosting Oklahoma State on Feb. 23. Yikes. But if you want a silver lining, that means Kansas State will absolutely have every opportunity to earn its spot in the field of 68.

Also, please keep in mind the last teams to get into the tournament every year are always worse than you think they should be, and that could be even more true this season. The Pac-12 legitimately looks like a one-bid league, and aside from the usual suspects (Nevada, Gonzaga, maybe St. Mary’s, definitely not Wichita State) and Buffalo for some reason, there aren’t a lot of potential bid-stealers from the smaller leagues.

Anyway, let’s take a closer look at how we got here, where exactly we are now, and how Kansas State can reach its third straight NCAA tourney.

Current status: Right side of the bubble

This is the least important section at this point in the season, so we’ll keep it short. Probably thanks in part to preseason expectations, if we’re being honest, Kansas State is still in 39 of 61 brackets over at The Bracket Project with an average of an 11 seed. Joe Lunardi has the ‘Cats as an 11 seed in what we’d have to call the Drew Schneider play-in game against Clemson, so that’s cool.

Nonconference play

It’s worth remembering Kansas State’s nonconference strength of schedule was significantly better this year than last year. How much better? Last season it ranked 324 out of 351 teams, according to KenPom. This season the ‘Cats sit at 195th out of 353 with one more noncon game left, at mediocre Texas A&M on Jan. 26. Progress!

This year the NCAA replaced the RPI (thank God) with its new NET rankings, which will hopefully be better. They could hardly be worse. I’ll give them at least a full season before making a judgment, and of course they’ll be included with KenPom rankings and records in this look at the noncon opponents.

56-41 vs. Kennesaw State (3-14) NET 320 KenPom 343
64-56 vs. Denver (5-13) NET 338 KenPom 316
95-68 vs. Eastern Kentucky (7-8) in Virgin Islands NET 212 KenPom 246
64-48 vs. Penn (10-5) in Virgin Islands NET 113 KenPom 127
82-67 vs. Missouri (9-4) in Virgin Islands NET 77 KenPom 87
77-58 vs. Lehigh (10-4) NET 145 KenPom 143
71-83 at Marquette (13-3) NET 21 KenPom 33
46-47 at Tulsa (11-4) NET 74 KenPom 129
59-71 vs. Georgia State (11-4) NET 104 KenPom 110
55-51 vs. Southern Miss (8-7) NET 130 KenPom 146
69-58 vs. Vanderbilt (9-5) in KC NET 63 KenPom 80
59-58 vs. George Mason (8-8) NET 155 KenPom 132

Look at those numbers, then compare them to the numbers from last season’s first Tournament Thursday, remembering K-State lost the same amount of games. That should matter on Selection Sunday. I’d like to think the difference in schedule strength could be equal to an extra Big 12 win or two, but we’ll see.

Keep an eye on Georgia State and Lehigh, as they’re both the top-rated teams in their conferences right now. Penn and Marquette should also be in the mix for conference titles and I have to mention that, against all odds, Missouri is looking like a team capable of making the tournament. Go Tigers!

I wish I could say the same for Vandy, but things aren’t looking good after an 0-2 start to SEC play. George Mason was looking strong until a home loss to a tough Davidson team, so perhaps the Patriots can surprise some people.

Last week

As expected, Kansas State lost at Texas Tech and beat West Virginia at home. The way it happened was a bit remarkable and really nerve-wracking, but no one on the committee will likely care about that.

This week

Things are about to get serious. K-State was picked to finish well ahead of Iowa State and Oklahoma, but both of those teams should be favorites when they host Kansas State. The ‘Cats would do well to win one, honestly.

That said, it’s not as if these are completely unwinnable games. After all, Iowa State just lost on the road to an average or perhaps mediocre Baylor team, and I’m sorry, but I’m not a believer in Oklahoma yet. The Sooners lost to Wisconsin on a neutral floor by 20, started Big 12 play 1-2 against a tough schedule, and their best win by a fairly wide margin is over Florida on a neutral court. Meh.

Big 12 bubble competition

This will be an interesting section to watch as the season goes along and we’ll go into a lot more detail later. For now, a quick synopsis.

Kansas and Texas Tech are making the tournament. Iowa State looks to be in great shape. Reasonable minds can differ on Oklahoma. Baylor, Oklahoma State and West Virginia all have a lot of work to do. That leaves Texas and TCU as the primary bubble teams right now, with both of them looking fairly solid.

What needs to do to make the NCAAs

There’s a lot of guesswork involved here at this point in the season, but it’s also really fun to speculate. Personally, I think the Big 12 is the nation’s best conference and the top 7 or 8 teams will probably deserve a spot. Whether that happens….well, I don’t even want to think about all the variables in play.

We do know no Big 12 team has missed the tournament after going .500 in league play with at least 19 wins since 2013 NIT champion Baylor. So even if K-State loses at A&M and in the first round of the Big 12 tourney, a 9-9 conference record with a 19-13 mark should still be good enough.

Drop down to 8-10, though, and things get a little more dicey. Last year was weird with four 8-10 teams, and two of them made the tournament. K-State snuck in with 8 wins and a 21-14 overall record in 2017. Since the league expanded to an 18-game schedule for the 2011-12 season, 6 of 9 teams that won only 8 league games still reached the Big Dance.

With that in mind, it seems safe to say a win at A&M and 7 more conference wins would be good enough this season, especially if a marquee win is thrown into the mix. A really interesting scenario would be if Kansas State wins out at home and loses every road game to finish 8-10 in conference with an overall record of 18-13, plus whatever happens in KC. Not sure how the committee would handle that.

Weirdly, no Big 12 team has gone 7-11 since Texas in 2012-13 (no NCAA) and it’s not impossible to imagine a team with that record getting in. But I don’t think it would be the ‘Cats, just because they don’t seem to get many breaks in situations like that.

Where do those wins come from? Well, as always, we need to begin at Bramlage. The ‘Cats should absolutely take care of business against Baylor and Oklahoma State later in the season, and TCU on January 19 is probably another one K-State needs to win in Manhattan, especially if it means avoiding a 1-5 start.

Four wins left. Iowa State and Kansas are a combined 1-4 on the road so far. Oklahoma needed overtime to win at Northwestern. If we keep our purple-tinted glasses on, it’s not unreasonable to think K-State could win two of those three in the Octagon, especially if Dean Wade returns to 100% since all three come after Valentine’s Day.

West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Baylor are all beatable on the road for the ‘Cats. Texas and TCU could be, too, but they’re a rung above those first three for now. Either way, win just two of those five to reach eight wins. Seems reasonable, especially when remembering Bruce has won 4 away games each of the last two seasons.

You’ll note the games I didn’t mention are the next two at ISU and Oklahoma, at Texas Tech on Jan. 23, then at Kansas in February. It would be a huge bonus, of course, if K-State could snag wins in any of those four road tests.

Assuming Dean does come back in February (positive news today!) the late schedule may be a huge blessing. Kansas State closes out the regular season with vs. ISU, @ WVU, vs. OSU, @ KU, vs. BU, @ TCU, vs. OU. That’s four home games out of seven, including two against a pair of the league’s weakest teams, and two trips to face bottom half teams, probably.

Essentially, don’t make the mistake of counting out K-State after a 1-4 start, or even a 2-6 start with games against Tech at home and in Stillwater on the horizon. As young guys like Mike McGuirl and Shaun Neal-Williams perhaps figure things out, plus the roster gets a little healthier, the schedule becomes easier.

There is still a clear path to March if the defense remains elite and the offense can just make a few slight improvements. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

Source: Bring on the Cats