Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber grinned when he received word that Tennessee upset No. 4 Kentucky on Tuesday.
The Wildcats had just fallen short in a game of their own at Iowa State, so Weber didn’t see how Rick Barnes and the Volunteers scored their biggest victory of the season. But he wasn’t surprised by the result. He already knew a difficult test awaited K-State in Saturday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge game at Tennessee.
“It was big anyway,” Weber said. “Now this gives it a little more hype.”
How each team handles the circumstances surrounding this game could go a long way toward determining the final score.
Tennessee (11-9, 4-4 SEC) is trying to build a case for NCAA Tournament inclusion. It suffered the majority of its losses early against one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules and is starting to improve its record against SEC opponents. A victory against K-State would boost its postseason resume.
K-State (15-5, 4-4 Big 12) seems to have moved to the safe side of the NCAA Tournament bubble after downing West Virginia last week and sitting fifth in the difficult Big 12. But that could change at any moment with an unforeseen loss. Beating Tennessee, which boasts quality wins and a top 50 RPI, would help solidify K-State’s postseason standing.
This game feels every bit as meaningful as a conference game for both teams.
“It’s a big weekend,” Weber said, “for our league to maintain its No. 1 RPI and big for us to finish off our nonconference (schedule) with a positive, real good record and another road win. It’s big.”
There is also each team’s last game to consider.
The Volunteers are coming off a high, but that hasn’t meant much for them this season. Stringing victories together has been difficult. Will they keep momentum going this time or suffer another letdown?
“I have said this many times, but, with this group, I’m not really sure where we are,” Barnes, a former Texas coach, said. “We have had some good wins. At the same time, I won’t know how we will respond until we play another game. Can we build on what we have done? I don’t know.”
The Wildcats are coming off a low, rallying from 20 down to take a lead at Iowa State only to see it disappear in the final moments. But they have won two of their past three. Can they bounce back?
“It will be interesting because of the mindsets,” Weber said. “They are coming off a pretty big high. We had a tough loss the other day. Hopefully motivation will be on our side.”
This will be a new situation for most involved, but it will feel a bit nostalgic for Weber and Barnes.
They used to coach against each other in the Big 12 at this time of year. It’s a nonconference game now, but they still respect each other like league rivals.
“They are the surprise team in the Big 12,” Barnes said. “Bruce, again, has done a great job with his team. He’s a great basketball coach and he does a great job. His team plays with passion ... It’s going to be a really big challenge for us.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett