Kansas State’s basketball stock is soaring.
The Wildcats have defeated top-20 teams in back-to-back games, they have grabbed hold of third place in the Big 12 standings and they have all but clinched a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
No matter what bracket projection you prefer, they are on it. Most predict K-State will earn a top-eight seed, including the annual mock selection that national media compiled with the help of NCAA Tournament officials earlier this week. They dubbed K-State a No. 6 seed.
Not bad for a team that has spent most of the season on the bubble.
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Of course, there is much work to be done between now and the postseason. The next two weeks alone will be significant. Three of K-State’s next four games — Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas Tech — are on the road. If it hopes to live up to, or exceed, current expectations, it will have to do something it hasn’t done all season: start beating decent teams on the road.
“The best thing you can do for your tournament resume is beat a tournament team away from home,” CBS bracket guru Jerry Palm said. “Kansas State hasn’t done that, and that makes them an interesting team. They have a high number of quality wins, but every one of them was in front of a friendly crowd.
“Until they beat somebody away from home, they are limited in how high they can go. The tournament is not played on home courts, so road and neutral victories carry extra weight. They are important.”
So important that Palm suggests a victory against Baylor on Saturday at the Ferrell Center would help K-State’s NCAA Tournament resume as much as its last two.
“In some respects,” Palm said, “it would be their best win of the season.”
It would certainly be their most impressive road victory. Though the Wildcats beat Gonzaga at Intrust Bank Arena, they haven’t beaten an opponent worth mentioning outside the Sunflower State. Even then the list is small. They beat Long Beach State in Puerto Rico, Tulane in Brooklyn and TCU in Fort Worth. All are down programs. All were played in dull arenas.
A win at Baylor would mean much more. Though the Bears have struggled mightily in the Big 12 after an early climb into the top 10, they are talented and they sport a RPI of 59. They are still in the NCAA Tournament mix.
K-State coach Bruce Weber isn’t ready to call it a must-win game, but for a team that has lost its last four road games he admits “it sure would be nice.”
“As we get this stretch running, we are battling to stay in the top third of the Big 12,” Weber said. “One thing I hope for is to stay in the top part of the league, and not only for the Big 12 championship, but also seeding with the NCAA. You cannot talk about being seeded until you win a few more games, and if you win a few more games, you have to stay in that top part of the league.”
K-State has remained within shouting distance of Kansas and Texas by winning all its conference home games, but it has come close in the majority of its road games.
After a blowout loss at Kansas, the Wildcats lost on a buzzer-beat at Texas and fell just short at Iowa State and West Virginia. Better starts, more energy and stronger defense could have won each of those games. They aren’t far off.
Frustrating as those losses were, K-State associated head coach Chris Lowery considers them a good omen.
“The teams that know how to win on the road are usually older teams,” Lowery said. “Half the guys we are playing haven’t been to these venues or competed in tough road conference environments, but now they have seen road games and know what they are like.
“They saw how close we were in the last four. We didn’t lose base on talent, it was execution. And we can correct execution. We have the weapons to win on the road. We just have to keep putting them in the right situations until they breakthrough.”
K-State players appear motivated to do exactly that.
Will Spradling spent much of the news conference following the KU victory talking about the importance of winning at Baylor. Coaches said the Wildcats had a good attitude in practices this week. No signs of a hangover.
They know how much work remain, especially on the road.
“Every game is tough,” senior guard Omari Lawrence said, “and we have to continue to win.”
Palm suggests a string of road wins or victories in the Big 12 Tournament could vault K-State all the way up to a No. 4 seed. But a string of road defeats could drop it back to a No. 11.
He considers the Wildcats a lock for the NCAA Tournament, based largely on what they have accomplished at home, but their seeding may depend on what they do on the road.
“Winning road games impresses everyone,” Palm said. “It is the most important thing you can do.”