Kansas State needs late wins to make NIT push

Kansas State’s bench celebrates a basket against Baylor during an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Kansas State’s bench celebrates a basket against Baylor during an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) AP

With two regular-season games remaining, Kansas State’s only hope to reach the NCAA Tournament is to win the Big 12 Tournament.

Let’s assume the Wildcats fail to make an unprecedented four-day run in Kansas City and fall short of the conference’s automatic bid. Where does that leave them?

It all depends on how they play the next two weeks, but the NIT remains a possibility. So do smaller postseason tournaments, such as the CBI, CIT and the new Vegas 16, should K-State choose to explore those options.

The NIT is the preferred destination. K-State players continue to set their sights on the Big Dance, but they also are beginning to view the NIT as a consolation prize. They want to finish the season strong.

“There is still a lot we can do,” K-State senior forward Stephen Hurt said. “There are a lot of different tournaments -- the NCAA, the NIT -- that we can get in. We are just trying to extend our season as long as possible.”

“We have been working hard,” added K-State senior Brian Rohleder. “We had a great practice yesterday, and everybody is still staying together. I mean, it’s 180 from last year. If we had the team from last year we would be split in a million different directions. But our team this year has just worked so hard and stayed together. I think it will give us good momentum going into the next game, the game down in Lubbock and then also into the Big 12 Tournament.”

Projecting the NIT is tricky, and the few websites that do so have different opinions on K-State. It is one of the final four teams in the NIT field, according to this projection. That’s a bad place to be, because NIT spots get gobbled up by mid-major teams. The regular-season champion of every conference is guaranteed a spot in the NIT if it fails to make the NCAA Tournament, meaning teams on the NIT bubble will miss out in order to make way for automatic qualifiers. Last year, 12 conference champions played in the NIT.

Another projection lists K-State comfortably in the NIT field as a No. 3 seed with an opening round game against Mississippi. But this projection has K-State on the bubble, ahead of only two other teams.

If K-State (15- 14, 4-12 Big 12) loses its next three games -- TCU, at Texas Tech, and its Big 12 Tournament opener -- it will miss the postseason. The NIT has never invited a team with a losing record, though there is no rule against doing so. Winning one of its next two games is a must. Winning at least one game at Sprint Center may also be crucial.

A 16-16 record might not be good enough. K-State currently has a strong enough RPI (78) to make the NIT field of 32, but that rating will likely fall after it plays TCU, given the Horned Frogs’ RPI of 171. Last season, the final two teams invited to the NIT were Arizona State (17-15 with a RPI of 102) and Vanderbilt (19-13 with a RPI of 104).

K-State’s NIT hopes would be much stronger with 17 victories. Beating TCU and, perhaps, Oklahoma State in Kansas City could do the trick. K-State is favored by 10.5 points against TCU and would likely be favored on a neutral court against the Cowboys.

Eighteen wins, which would include an upset at Texas Tech or against Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, would probably make K-State a NIT lock.

The Wildcats are within reach of the postseason, but they need a few more wins to get there.

Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett