Late in the year, it was starting to look like only four Big 12 teams would be solid picks for the NCAA Tournament, but with two big road wins in the last week, Kansas State has played themselves off the bubble and onto a lot of "sleeper" lists for the NCAA Tournament.
After beating Baylor in Waco (which admittedly hasn't been as hard to do as it was earlier in the year), Kansas State traveled to Columbia, Mo. last night to take on the No. 3 Missouri Tigers.
Kansas State forced Missouri to play its worst game of the season in the first matchup between these teams in Manhattan, Kan., but the Wildcats still weren't expected to come into one of the toughest college environments and steal another win from the Tigers.
They did just that, frustrating Missouri's defense and getting a number of easy looks because of their size inside.
After a stretch of the season in which they lost four of six games (including games against subpar Oklahoma and Texas teams), the Wildcats have responded with these two big road wins and are looking as tough and well-coached as any team in the nation.
With three winnable games left on the schedule, the Wildcats are likely to finish the year at 22-8 (11-7) which would make them a complete lock for the tournament and would put them on a roll going into the tournament. This team has a lot of tools that will be useful in the field of 68.
Rodney McGruder has proved himself to be a dynamic scorer a lot of the time this season and could be the team's primetime player in a tournament setting.
Jamar Samuels is an elite rebounder for his size and he controls things in the middle of the team's great size and strength.
The Wildcats also have a good pair of distributers in Will Spradling and Angel Rodriguez. Both players are quick and provide matchup problems on both sides of the ball.
Over the last few games, we have figured out that Kansas State is a great rebounding team, but can also stay with quick guards such as Missouri's Phil Pressey as well as playing great defense against almost any type of opponent. Coach Frank Martin said that he thought this team was one of the best defensive teams he's had in his time at KSU, which is saying something because there have been some big defenses during his reign.
As you can see, these characteristics make for a dangerous team in a tournament setting, especially because they have experienced adversity during this season and gotten through it tougher on the other side.
As for the angle from the Missouri side of things, I haven't come across too many people concerned with the team's second loss to Kansas State this season. Most analysts are intelligent enough to see that the Wildcats are a tough physical matchup for the Tigers and see that Kansas State is more well-coached and familiar with Missouri than most teams (other than Kansas).
Some people will comment that Missouri is not going to be a good tournament pick because Kansas State has exposed their only weakness twice this season, but can you find a team not named Syracuse that rebounds better, is coached better and is more talented defensively than Kansas State is?
It's obvious that Missouri has this weakness. Everyone has seen it this year. But still the Tigers have a 25-3 record and are 12-3 in the Big 12. That is no fluke. Missouri has a great team with flaws, but let's be honest, no college team is perfect.
Frank Haith's staff will learn from this game and react to it just like they did with their first two losses of the year. The team is experienced and focused and should still be a big player when the tournament rolls around in a couple of weeks.
A big road tests awaits the Tigers that will determine who will claim the conference championship of 2011-2012 as Missouri travels to Lawrence to take Kansas on for the final time in a regular season setting.