It’s that time of year. The NCAA tourney bubble is starting to take shape, and this month is the most pivotal time for teams that find themselves there – and it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bruce Weber’s coaching career that his team once again sits squarely in that conversation. There’s still plenty of opportunities to seal up a bid for the Wildcats, but their play of late doesn’t inspire much confidence that they’ll be able to take advantage.
As of today, the Cats sit at 16-7 (5-5 in the Big 12). After yet another putrid non-conference slate – in which they played just one Top 50 KenPom opponent (ASU – a loss) and two more Top 100 opponents (Vandy, UGA) – the pressure has been on to perform in conference play. A rough 2-3 start had the team’s tourney chances looking grim, but a revelatory emergence from redshirt freshman point guard Cartier Diarra spurred the squad on to four consecutive wins, including beating then #4 Trae Young and Oklahoma. The run ended last week, however, in rather embarrassing fashion. It started Monday against KU, as the team shot a paltry 32% from the floor in a 14 point home loss (that didn’t feel that close). Then, it culminated in a 38 point debacle in Morgantown on Saturday (against a WV team battling the flu and had lost 5 of 6) that was the most lopsided KSU loss since losing by 41 to UMKC in 2003. So, what to make of this team?
In today’s BracketMatrix, KSU is projected as an 11 seed (with a strong chance of being in a play-in game). So while they’re currently safe…they’re hovering dangerously close to the line. The outcomes of their final 8 games (as projected by KenPom) look like this:
@ Texas – L (31%)
vs Tech – L (41%)
@ OSU – L (42%)
vs ISU – W (76%)
vs Texas – W (56%)
@ OU – L (27%)
@ TCU – L (28%)
vs Baylor – W (61%)
This would put the Cats at 19-12 (8-10). That’s *maybe* good enough to sneak into the field (since the conference is viewed as stronger than a year ago and 8-10 drew a bid for Weber’s crew then), but they’d need to win at least their first matchup in the league tourney to be sure. The key games left (in my opinion) are actually the next three. If they could find a victory in even one of those three, they’ll be in good shape (and I think they do). That would give them four Top 50 wins (if they beat Texas or Tech) and at least six Top 50 wins if the projections held otherwise, so it’s hard to see how they’d get left out with that many quality wins on their resume. Now, if this trend of recently poor play continues and a 7-11 (or worse) finish is what materializes…then the NIT would be their most likely destination.
DOES BRUCE (FINALLY) GET FIRED?
I really don’t see a path shy of the team imploding and losing out, because even a 6-12 league record probably gets an NIT bid. I personally don’t think Bruce is the the longterm answer and fully believe he should be removed if the team misses the tournament, though I think KSU leadership feels differently – especially since they’ll likely be hiring a new football coach within a couple of years. Some fans have made the case he ought to be fired even if he makes the tournament as a high seed – but I don’t think that’s fair. As frustrating as his tenure has been, he does have a conference title and will have made the tournament 4 out of his 6 years in Manhattan (assuming he makes it this season – a feat accomplished by only one other Wildcat coach in over 30 years) AND will be bringing back the entire roster (assuming no defections). It’s hard for me to deem that worthy of firing him.
Ideally, I’d like to see this team show some fight and resiliency as the year winds down, finishing at least 9-9 (and hopefully better). Then after a respectable league tourney showing, they finally get Bruce’s first tournament victory in his time here while preparing to compete at the top of the conference next year (I’m unfortunately not sure how realistic this is). The frustrating scenario is finishing 8-10 and being one of the last four teams in (again) and either losing the play-in game or getting blitzed in the first round of the tourney (again). The nightmare scenario is a team-wide implosion yet still making the NIT and Bruce keeping his job. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.