February 27, 2008

Cats are alive, but maybe not well

The uncertainty that has kicked down the door of the Kansas State locker room recently has an all to familiar stench. Almost exactly a year ago, the Wildcats found themselves in a position to play their way in or out of college basketball's most prestigious postseason tournament and ended up accomplishing the latter. But this year was supposed to be different. This year, a highly touted recruiting class, headed up by Michael Beasley, was supposed to breeze K-State into the promised land, and still, just a few weeks before the NCAA Tournament field will be announced, that prophecy seems to be getting misty.

With three regular-season games to play, the Wildcats, 8-5 in conference play and 18-9 overall, are just 1-4 in their last five contests and haven't won a game away from home since a Jan. 23 victory at Colorado. Recent days have brought with them a repeat of the same widespread nail biting that took place in and around Manhattan last year at this time, and everyone seems to have their opinion when it comes to K-State's postseason destiny.

So what do the experts think? Are the Wildcats NCAA Tournament bound, or will they again be playing in the lesser-known bracket with a three-letter name?

"They're on (the bubble)," said CollegeRPI.com's Jerry Palm, a nationally recognized bracketologist. "They have enough good wins right now, but the important thing for them is just not to tank the end of the year, which they are in the process of doing."

K-State's season isn't completely lost yet, however. Winnable games with both Colorado and Iowa State remain on the Wildcats' schedule, as well as a Saturday meeting with in-state rival Kansas. Though many K-State fans will argue that any meeting with the Jayhawks is a must-win, Palm says Saturday's contest in Lawrence is anything but.

"It's not important in terms of getting selected," he said of a K-State win in Saturday's Sunflower Showdown. "They don't have to beat Kansas. They already beat Kansas. It's the other two. It's Colorado and Iowa State. You can lose to Kansas. You just can't lose to Colorado or Iowa State."

So though a regular-season sweep of KU would be a welcomed blessing for K-State fans everywhere, as well as make the Wildcats a virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament, the must-wins won't present themselves until well after the final buzzer of Saturday's game in Allen Field House sounds. After all, being selected for the most prestigious tournament in college basketball is all about appearing as though you belong.

"Other than Nebraska, it's not like they're losing to teams they have no business losing to," Palm said. "If you go out and lose to Colorado at home or Iowa State, now you don't look like a tournament team anymore."

Despite his vast knowledge on the subject, it won't be Palm, or any other basketball pundit for that matter, who determines the final field of 65. That will be up to members of this year's NCAA selection committee, who refuse to discuss specific teams, but caution that speculation is often futile, as no two member's views on the selection criteria are alike.

"The reality is that we look at a bunch of different things," said Utah University Athletics Director Chris Hill, a member of this year's committee. "Each committee member will have a different view of each aspect -- the last 12 games, the non-conference records, injury reports and those things."

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