March Madness is just a few weeks away — meaning one of the best spectacles in all of sports is right around the corner. The question is will Kansas State be a part of it?
What the Wildcats do over their next five games could be the deciding factor as to whether they’re playing in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.
“This is a real important stretch of Kansas State’s schedule coming up,” Jerry Palm said in a phone interview with The Mercury on Wednesday.
Palm, one of the most highly regarded experts regarding the NCAA tournament selection process, is essentially the Joe Lunardi of CBSsports.com. The Purdue graduate is an expert on the RPI, which measures the strength of a team’s schedule and how a team fares against it. The RPI, created in 1981, is a mathematical formula the NCAA tournament selection committee takes into account when deciding who should be in and who should be left out of the 68-team field.
K-State, which is 17-6 overall, currently has the No. 50 RPI in the country. Palm has the Wildcats as a nine-seed in his projected bracket, while Lunardi has them as a 10 seed, meaning K-State is probably safely in at the moment, but that can change in just a week’s time.
“I don’t think anybody from the middle of the bracket on down can feel comfortable because you’re basically a two or three-game losing streak from being out,” said Palm, who created the web site CollegeRPI.com.
The Wildcats are helped by a weak pool of potential tournament-quality squads, meaning teams that may be NIT-bound in most years could be on the right side of the bubble for the Big Dance this year. K-State isn’t one of those teams having to rely on that factor as of now, but with a few more losses down the stretch it could come into play.
“All those teams in that part of the world — that are on the bubble — what you need to do primarily is avoid the bad loss, beat the teams that tournament-quality teams should beat, and try and pick up some quality wins along the way to pad your resume,” Palm said.
K-State doesn’t have what the “experts” would call a “bad loss” on its resume right now. The Wildcats are 5-6 against the RPI top-100 teams and 3-4 against top-50 RPI opponents. They picked up two key nonconference wins against likely NCAA-tournament teams in Alabama and Long Beach State, and have a marquee win against No. 4 Missouri.
But just to be safe, K-State wouldn’t mind having a couple more quality wins on its postseason resume, and the opportunity to add those victories will come over the next two weeks. The Wildcats face five teams that all have RPIs ranked 58 or better, including three opponents with top-10 RPI rankings.
Texas, K-State’s opponent on Saturday, has the lowest RPI at 58, but it could be one of the biggest games during that stretch because it occurs on the road. Victories away from home factor into the RPI more than home wins, and they’re also more significant in the eyes of the selection committee since the NCAA Tournament is played on a neutral floor.
“That Texas game — that could be someone you’re competing with for a spot in the tournament,” Palm said. “It’s a huge game for both of these teams. It would be a nice win for Kansas State if they get it — their best road win of the year for sure.”
As if winning in Austin isn’t hard enough, the Wildcats’ schedule only gets more difficult by the day. K-State hosts No. 7 Kansas on Feb. 13, then travels to No. 6 Baylor and No. 4 Missouri. If K-State drops these next four games, including the contest at Texas, then its final three games likely become must-wins against Iowa State, at Texas A&M and at home against Oklahoma State.
“You look at their schedule: at Texas, home to KU, at Baylor, at Missouri,” Palm said. “Guess what? That looks an awful lot like a four-game losing streak. If that does become a four-game losing streak it puts a lot more pressure on those last three games.”
K-State has three road wins on the year, including a victory at Oklahoma State, which is looking better and better as the season goes on. The Wildcats also won three neutral-site games in Hawaii, including the blowout win over Long Beach State. Despite those wins, Palm said K-State has more work to do away from Bramlage Coliseum. Because of that, a victory over the Longhorns (15-9, 5-6) could prove key in keeping K-State off of the bubble come Selection Sunday.
“They’ve done all their best work at home, so it would really be nice for them to get a win off their home court,” he said. “If all you have is home wins at the end of the year, it better be some pretty darn good home wins.”