College athletes aren’t ensconced in a bubble.
Particularly those in three of the most high-profile sports: football and men’s and women’s basketball. All three, given their status and the playoff formats in each, are constantly bombarded by those around them. Parents. Aunts. Uncles. Friends. All want to know whether their son or daughter, their cousin or classmate, will play in the postseason. Fans discuss it on social media. Sometimes, those supporters will reach out to the players with encouragement. (Sometimes not. That ability to harshly criticize a player on a team someone says they support — and with the impunity of anonymity, if they so choose — is one of the drawbacks of the double-edged sword that is technology in our increasingly connected world.)
Throw in the tournament projections always floating about, and regularly updated, and it’s easy for players to wrestle with information overload.
Jeff Mittie knows this.
That’s why Mittie, Kansas State’s head women’s basketball coach, tries to cut through the clutter.
“My philosophy is, if you’re not talking to them, somebody else is,” he said. “The message is out there. ... Being that I’m probably the most knowledgeable of the group, I think it’s important that they hear it from me, and then we get back to the basics of whittling it down to what our goals are.”
The Wildcats took a large step toward accomplishing their primary objective this season — returning to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence — Wednesday. In a contest against another bubble team, West Virginia, K-State played what Mittie dubbed “the best basketball we’ve played this season” in a 90-79 victory at Bramlage Coliseum.
It wasn’t all roses, though.
This was a game that saw K-State go through peaks and valleys, from holding a 13-point lead in the third quarter to seeing that advantage vanish in the midst of a 17-0 run by West Virginia. But the Wildcats made the plays that counted in the final period.
Freshman Laura Macke hit the deck at will, never giving up on any possession. Sharpshooter Rachel Ranke hit a pair of 3-pointers. Peyton Williams was a perfect 4-for-4 (and 10 of 10 overall) from the free throw line. In a wild scramble for a loose ball, Christianna Carr swished a jumper with 7:34 remaining to give the hosts the lead for good. And Kayla Goth scored half of her career-high 30 points in the final 10 minutes.
It’s not hyperbole to say those plays potentially saved the Wildcats’ season, at least in terms of their NCAA hopes. A loss to West Virginia, a team that pounded K-State 60-30 in the first meeting this season on Jan. 26, would have seen the Wildcats’ final opportunity for a resume-building win go to the wayside.
No disrespect to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, K-State’s final two regular-season opponents, but wins against them won’t impress the tournament’s selection committee. A loss, on the other hand, would put it in jeopardy of relegation to the WNIT for the second straight year.
Yet the Wildcats kept their cool.
The Mountaineers didn’t. And that ate away at their head coach, Mike Carey, who was visibly frustrated with his team afterward.
“We got a four-point lead, and the people who got us the four-point lead came back down and took two bad shots, gave up a 3 on the other end, turned the ball over two times in a row, and then we get a technical,” Carey said. “It’s ridiculous. ... I’m just mad at my team. Kansas State did a great job. Give them all the credit. It’s nothing against them. They did it to us. We just weren’t ready to play.”
That the Wildcats were, in Mittie’s mind, is a testament to their growth over the course of the season.
Earlier in the year, he’s not sure his team would have been able to shake off coughing up such a large third-quarter lead. But with the benefit of time, and experience, K-State has become more resilient. Or as Mittie put it, “grittier.” It’s not a word he tosses around lightly. They had to earn it.
Mittie’s players batted the praise back his way.
Both Goth and Carr said they couldn’t be more grateful for Mittie’s frankness about their chances of making it to the Big Dance.
“I’m a tangible-goal kind of person,” Goth said. “I struggle with the, ‘We just need to win as many games as possible’ (philosophy). Everybody’s trying to do that. Nobody wants to lose any games. Nobody wants to do that. But the reality of it is, in our conference, unless you’re Baylor this year, you’ve lost some games. So I appreciate it in the sense of knowing the tangible number that we need to get to to give ourselves a shot at the tournament. (It) is something that is really important for me to know, and I appreciate very much.”
Carr felt the same way.
Mittie and the rest of his coaching staff, Carr said, tell it like it is. She couldn’t ask for much more than that.
“It’s very black and white,” Carr said. “There’s no ‘yes, no, maybe.’”
As a reporter, that to-the-point manner of openly discussing the NCAA Tournament is refreshing. And K-State’s players said it helps them relax. Carr pointed out that the Wildcats are well-aware they’re on the bubble. Entering Wednesday’s game, ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme had both K-State and West Virginia among his “last four teams out” if the selection committee started seeding teams today.
With Mittie’s guidance, K-State knows what it must do now.
“It’s just, ‘If you come to play and you do what you’re supposed to do, then you’ll get in,’” Carr said. “Now we know if we don’t get in, then we simply didn’t do what we were supposed to do as a team. That’s kind of the mindset we have going forward: We’re attacking each and every game like we need to be — like we need to win it.”
That much is clear.
In the past, a .500 record in the Big 12 easily breezed into the tournament with an at-large bid. If Creme’s projections are correct, that’s not the case this year. The only teams from the league in his most recent bracket were Baylor, Texas and Iowa State. All three, at the time, were five games (or more) above .500. After Wednesday’s win, K-State is 9-7 in conference play. To put it simply, the Wildcats just need to keep winning.
From there, the chips will fall where they may.
Mittie’s focus, oriented solely on the future, is razor sharp.
“We break it down into three-game stretches,” he said. “So quite frankly, I don’t want to hear another thing about bracketology from my staff or anybody. We’re in a three-game stretch, and this was the first of the three-game stretch. We’ve got the second game coming up on Saturday, and I feel like we’re playing good basketball. Let’s keep doing that.”
It’s good food for thought for outsiders who want to chime in and talk to players about the tournament. Let Mittie coach. Let the players play. Hold the comments for a later date.
The perfect time to reach out?
March 18, the day the NCAA releases the 64-team bracket.
But for those struggling to keep themselves from weighing in, take a cue from Goth.
It’s a tangible, reasonable timeline.