PREVIEW: Win over Iowa State possible key to entering NCAA tournament

K-State guard Markquis Nowell dribbles during the second half of the game against Kansas on Feb. 22, 2022. (Archive photo by Marshall Sunner | Collegian Media Group)

Kansas State men’s basketball (14-13, 6-9) will take on Iowa State (18-9, 5-9) in Bramlage Coliseum at 1 p.m. on Sat. Feb 26, in the Wildcats’ second-to-last home game of the season. Here’s what to look out for.

The Cyclones started off the season hot — going undefeated in non-conference play — but have cooled off since playing a rigorous Big 12 schedule. Once ranked No. 10 in the country, Iowa State’s 5-9 conference record has moved them to the bubble.

The Wildcats are also looking at the bubble. K-State has found its fair share of close wins — and close losses — with some solid quad-one wins against teams like Texas and Texas Tech. Because of the Wildcats’ record, however, K-State also remains on the bubble.

The difference between these two teams, according to ESPN’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi, is that if the season ended today, Iowa State would be in the tournament and K-State would be on the outside looking in.

While supporting the Big 12 is in the best interest of all of the teams in the conference, K-State might find itself in a situation where the spot it’s searching for in the tournament is held by Iowa State. If this is the case, Saturday’s match-up could be one of the most important of the year for the Wildcats: the game has the potential to be, “Win and you stay alive: lose and you’re done.”

K-State already has one head-to-head win at Iowa State this season — an overtime game where the Wildcats clawed back from down 15 in the second half to secure the win. The Cyclones have proven themselves beatable by this K-State team, so what does K-State need to do differently this time to not have to come from behind?

To start, Iowa State’s Aljaz Kunc, who averaged 5.6 points coming into the match-up, scored 11 points in just the first three minutes. Realizing that Kunc can hit from far-range is something for K-State to key in on in the rematch, as Kunc’s 11 points were part of a 13-0 start to the game for the Cyclones.

While Kunc had an abnormally good game, the Wildcat defense will have to focus on NBA-prospect Izaiah Brockington, who leads the team in points (17.3) and rebounds (7.5) per game. Tyrese Hunter also provides 11 points and 4.4 rebounds for one of the better guard-combos in the conference.

Iowa State forced K-State playmakers to the baseline in the first match-up, leaving three-point shooters open in the corners. With this in mind, it should be a big day for Wildcat guards Nijel Pack and Markquis Nowell, who scored 19 and 16, respectively, in the previous game.

Be on the lookout for the Big 12’s rebounding leader — K-State’s Mark Smith — to rack up big numbers off the glass, as Iowa State features a smaller lineup.