March 3, 2008

Bubble watch? Not yet for the Wildcats

Define "bubble." If an NCAA Tournament team not on the bubble is one that can afford to lose every game between this moment and the end of conference tournaments, then a lot of college basketball teams find themselves on "the bubble." And few still remain locks for the NCAA Tournament field.

However, if your definition of bubble is more forgiving and doesn't require some extraordinary effort to sneak into the field of 65, then K-State is clearly not on the tournament's bubble. In fact, the Wildcats are in complete control of their tournament destiny as the postseason nears.

For starters, anyone who thinks K-State's 88-74 loss at Kansas on Saturday night actually hurt the Wildcats' chances to get into the field is bathed in ignorance. In reality, K-State could only help itself in Lawrence. It's those season-ending games that loom large for the Cats.

"They don't have to beat Kansas. They already beat Kansas. It's the other two; it's Colorado and Iowa State. You can lose to Kansas. You just can't lose to Colorado or Iowa State," CollegeRPI.com's Jerry Palm told GoPowercat's Robert Cassidy last week.

Sure, the Wildcats are on a four-game losing streak coming down the stretch, but outside of the loss at Nebraska, which following the Huskers' wins over Texas A&M and Oklahoma doesn't seem so dreadful, the streak isn't so unexpected.

The Cats lost at Baylor, playing well in the process, but running into a highly talented Baylor team fighting for its tournament life. Then the Cats dropped games to Top-10 teams Texas and Kansas. That shouldn't be shocking, although beating either may have vaulted the Cats into a lock status for the tournament field.

"I don't know why it's so hard for people to understand in this league we don't have a bad team. We don't have a team that everybody goes to play and gets healthy on that night," K-State coach Frank Martin said of the Big 12.

"Every team goes on a losing streak. We've just gone on a little losing streak late in the year. I can't tell you why we've lost four straight. I can tell you we won't lose a fifth," K-State freshman Michael Beasley said. "I don't decide the teams that play in the tournament. I'm just playing."

In part because of Beasley and in part because of Martin's scheduling, this K-State team is in much better tournament condition than last year's. Excuse me for growing weary of the comparisons between the plight of the 2006-07 Wildcats and this year's team. While admitting that I thought the Wildcats clearly belonged in last season's field more than teams such as Stanford and Texas Tech, this year's team has answered almost every question that held the Wildcats out of the bracket a year ago.

First, the Big 12 is now considered the second-best conference in the nation according to the RPI, which is a vast change from the sixth or seventh slot the conference was in at the end of last season. So, K-State won't be perceived as racking up wins in a so-so conference.

More importantly, K-State has no bad non-conference losses as it did a year ago (remember Colorado State and New Mexico?). It has beaten two Top 10 teams, and its strength of schedule has gone from the 80s to the high teens or 20s.

Ironically, the only similarities the two resumes may have by the time the selections roll around will be the conference record: 10-6. And that must be run through the filter of th strength of the Big 12 Conference this year as opposed to last.

Is K-State on "the bubble" in the wake of its loss to Kansas? Not just no, but heck no. Most people who project the brackets based on what the Selection Committee has done in the past, still put the Wildcats in as a No. 7 seed. That is far from the bubble of being left out, although some members of the media had convinced themselves that Martin's Wildcats were probably out of the field after the loss to KU.

"Why should we? We're tied for third place. I think Baylor has a knot on us, but we've got two games to go," Martin said. "You mean to tell me the Big 12 is only going to put three teams in the tournament? Our resume is pretty strong."

With a home game with Colorado and a road game at Iowa State looming -- those are the bottom two teams in the Big 12 this season -- the Wildcats simply need those two wins to guarantee themselves a spot in the field no matter what happens in the upcoming Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City.

"We've got to go home; it's Senior Night. We've got to re-energize and go in there and play our hearts out," Martin added.

In light of the Wildcats' recent road issues (five straight defeats in conference play away from home) losing to Iowa State is a possibility. That would put the Wildcats on the bubble and facing at least one must-win game at the Sprint Center.

And honestly, if a team can't win games against Colorado and Iowa State at this point of the season, the bubble is exactly where it belongs. Luckily for K-State, it's still not there.


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