Is Kansas State’s basketball schedule a blessing or a curse?
The debate is already raging. Fans, experts and computers all seem to view the Wildcats and their 9-1 record differently.
Some see K-State as an up-and-coming team that is off to its best start under coach Bruce Weber. It received four votes in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll and carries a KenPom ranking of 33.
Others see K-State as a pretender that has piled up victories against hapless competition. The Wildcats’ nonconference schedule is one of the nation’s weakest, ranking 327th out of 351. Their RPI sits at 116.
You can’t find K-State anywhere on current bracket projections. Not even in the first-four-out or next-four-out categories. Come March, the Wildcats’ schedule could make for an interesting topic for the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
“You certainly can’t judge it right now,” CBS college basketball analyst Jerry Palm said in a phone interview, “but that will be a problem if they are a bubble team. That is the kind of thing the committee leaves teams out for every single year.”
For now, Weber isn’t worried.
He likes the schedule his team has played. He thinks it has helped a young roster — which features three sophomores and a freshman in its top seven — gain experience and build confidence. K-State’s average margin of victory is 20.2 points, which Weber thinks shows the team has developed a killer instinct.
Besides, he says, the schedule is about to get a lot tougher with Colorado State on Saturday and then Big 12 games on the horizon.
“When we get into (Big 12 play) if we win games like we are supposed to, I don’t think we are going to have any problem,” Weber said. “Each year is different. Last year we played the most teams in the (RPI) top 50 and it didn’t help us.”
Last year, K-State started 10-2 with losses to North Carolina and Texas A&M and then went 5-13 in a conference that featured 14 games against NCAA Tournament teams. The Wildcats ultimately fell short of the NIT.
“What good did it do us?” Weber said. “I think (our current schedule) is a nice mixture. It’s your team you have got to look at … We thought we needed home games to gain some confidence and figure things out. Hopefully that will lead to (good things).”
It’s a strategy that has both worked well and backfired for teams before.
Last year, South Carolina exited the SEC tournament with a 24-8 record. That’s typically good enough for a power-conference team to reach the NCAA Tournament, but a soft nonconference schedule combined with an 11-7 mark in the middling SEC, sent it to the NIT.
Two seasons ago, TCU opened 13-0 against an easy schedule and earned a national ranking, only to go 4-14 in Big 12 games.
Yet Jamie Dixon made a career out of guiding Pittsburgh to the NCAA Tournament with flimsy nonconference schedules.
“It can be done,” Palm said. “You can make the NCAA Tournament playing a really bad nonconference schedule, but you’re putting all your eggs in the conference basket. You really have to prove yourself in conference games and play yourself off the bubble completely, because if you are on the bubble with a nonconferenece schedule that is really bad, your chances of making the tournament are almost zero.”
So far, K-State has victories over name opponents Boston College and Washington State, as well as a resounding 84-53 road victory against Saint Louis, but none of those teams have winning records.
According to RPI numbers, K-State’s best victories came against Nebraska-Omaha (114 RPI) and Wisconsin-Green Bay (160). The only quality team K-State has faced is Maryland (10-1, 33 RPI), and the Terrapins beat the Wildcats 69-68 on a neutral court.
K-State’s other wins include Western Illinois (350), Hampton (328) and Prairie View A&M (273).
Home attendance has been down. And, at times, players have talked more about avoiding losses than picking up wins.
“One loss to a team like that can hurt us and put us in a very bad position,” senior wing Wesley Iwundu said. “We are not trying to face that. We want to win all these games and put the teams away early.”
That makes K-State’s game against Colorado State in Denver important.
The Wildcats lack quality wins, and they need to take advantage when the schedule strengthens to enhance their postseason resume.
Colorado State, 8-2, has a winning record and a better RPI (101) than any team K-State has beaten.
The Wildcats will make their case for the NCAA Tournament during Big 12 play, but they can’t waste an opportunity to pick up a respectable victory this weekend.
“This is a big game for us,” Weber said. “There is no doubt about it.”
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett