Men’s basketball tournament hopes hinge on next stretch

The men's basketball team plays against KU in Bramlage Coliseum on Jan. 29, 2018. The Jayhawks took the lead and the win over the Wildcats with a final score of 70-56. (Meg Shearer | Collegian Media Group)

With Big 12 Conference play a little over halfway over, the Kansas State men’s basketball team finds itself in a familiar position. You guessed it: the bubble.

ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi recently had the Wildcats as an 11 seed in his NCAA tournament projections, playing North Carolina State in a play-in game. Lunardi has since moved them to the last spot in the last four in.

Once upon a time, the Wildcats had won four of five conference games, with the only loss being on the road at Allen Fieldhouse to Kansas by just one point. In that streak, K-State shut down University of Oklahoma freshman Trae Young in an upset over the then-No. 4 Sooners.

K-State followed that with a win over then-No. 24 TCU, and a road win against a good, but not great, Baylor team. The Wildcats did their part in the Big 12/SEC Challenge by beating the University of Georgia in a low scoring affair, 56-51.

The past two games haven’t been so kind for the Wildcats. The team fell to then-No. 7 Kansas at home on Big Monday, 70-56. K-State followed that with an absolute goose egg: a 38-point loss on the road to West Virginia University. A loss was probably expected, but a shellacking wasn’t.

Now sitting 16-7, 5-5 in conference play, the Wildcats have some work to do if they want to make the NCAA tournament.

K-State will play on the road against the University of Texas Longhorns next, a winnable game if the team shows up. Winning any game in the Big 12 is tough, but winning on the road is even harder regardless of who you’re playing.

The Wildcats will return home with a game against No. 7 Texas Tech. Winning that game would be a huge résumé booster, but probably won’t hurt the Cats too much if they lose.

After that, the team faces arguably the most important stretch the rest of the season. K-State will go to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to face Oklahoma State before returning back to Manhattan to face Iowa State and Texas. That three-game stretch could determine the team’s tournament fate, and in turn could determine head coach Bruce Weber’s future with the program.

That stretch needs to result in three wins for K-State. Are those games going to be easy? No; there are no easy games in the Big 12. But those games against those teams are the type of games a tournament team wins. None of those games are going to be eye-popping wins, but at the end of the day, they will be conference wins in the toughest conference in the country.

To win those games, the team is going to need every player to show up every night. Junior guard Barry Brown needs to play like the player he was earlier in the year when he scored 38 points against Oklahoma State, not the player who had one point and six turnovers against West Virginia.

Junior forward Dean Wade needs to continue to be aggressive like he has been in games past. He’s been playing with a killer wolf mentality, which has given the Wildcats life at times.

Sophomore forward Xavier Sneed, freshman guard Cartier Diarra and junior guard Kamau Stokes, who is returning from injury, will all need to play at the top of their potential. Each of them has shown at some point this year that they have the ability to lead the team.

With eight conference games left, every Wildcat fan will have their eyes on the team to see if it can get away from the tournament bubble, in the right way.