Last year, Kansas State entered the Big 12 Tournament as the sixth seed and owned records of 19-12 overall and 8-10 in the league. The Wildcats were invited to the NCAA Tournament.
After Saturday’s 77-67 triumph over Baylor that ended the regular season, K-State owns better records (21-10, 10-8) and a better seed (No. 4) for the Big 12 Tournament. But its NCAA Tournament assurance is only marginally more secure.
The reason for doubt originates in November and December. The Wildcats played a non-conference schedule that has been a drag on their postseason prospects.
On the surface, the non-league collection doesn’t look horrible. Kansas State played two teams from the Southeastern Conference, two from the Pac-12, and one each from the Atlantic-10 and American Athletic. That’s a nice mix. But none of those teams are pointed toward the NCAA Tournament, which is why K-State’s non-conference schedule ranks in the 300s.
Bruce Weber said the slate was put together with the team’s youth in mind. K-State has no seniors in the playing rotation, but in hindsight he’d feel better about the Wildcats’ position if they had played a higher-quality early opponent.
“A problem is no one wants to come here,” Weber said.
Weber said lining up opponents is easier if they agree to play a return game in Kansas City or Wichita rather than Bramlage Coliseum. Next season, the Wildcats meet Vanderbilt at the Sprint Center after beating them in Nashville last season. Recently, the Wildcats had the same arrangement with Texas A&M.
Baylor, which dropped to 18-13 and 8-10 with the loss and will be the sixth seed in the Big 12 tourney, is about in the same boat with the Wildcats in the projections - a No. 10 or No. 11 NCAA seed - because the Bears’ non-league schedule included Wichita State, Xavier and Creighton.
Also, Baylor collected victories over Kansas and Texas Tech this season. The Wildcats went 0-6 against the teams above them in the standings, and 10-2 against those below.
Scheduling improvement should come next season, with phone calls going out to prospective opponents over the last few weeks. Meanwhile, these Wildcats will head to the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City feeling confident.
No matter the records or seed, this K-State team is better than last year’s. Dean Wade, who scored 17 of his 25 points in their first half Saturday, is the Big 12’s best forward and could see his name on the all-conference teams that will pop up this week.
Guard Barry Brown had 18 points and gives Kansas State a floor leader at a position that is strong throughout the Big 12. The Wildcats needed the production to offset the big game by Baylor bean pole Nuni Omot, future crossword puzzle answer, whose 30 points were the most against Kansas State this season.
Baylor’s Scott Drew joked that he hoped Saturday, Senior Day for the Wildcats, was the final home game in the careers of juniors Wade and Brown. With Wade, Weber has discussed the issue with Wade's parents.
“It’s not just going to the NBA, it’s being ready to go the NBA and stay in the NBA,” Weber said.
Wade’s game and confidence have developed that much. So have the Wildcats, who were picked eighth by the coaches in the preseason. An NCAA appearance gets framed as an overachievement and would be the program’s fourth in Weber’s six seasons.
Also, one more victory would give him the second-most in a Kansas State season.
And if Wade, Brown and rest of these Wildcats return for 2019, Weber should have his strongest team since his first, when players largely recruited by Frank Martin tied for the Big 12 title.
It could by the type of team that won’t be wondering about its bracket status when March arrives, and it will have faced bigger challenges in November and December.