Kansas, barring a monumental collapse in the final week of the regular season and the Big 12 tournament, will be seeded first in one of the four NCAA Tournament regionals and likely No. 1 overall. However, there could be a second No. 1 seed from the state.
Kansas State has quietly put itself in the discussion. The Wildcats are 23-4, No. 6 in The Associated Press media poll and The List, Basketball Prospectus' weekly rankings.
"We do think about it and we've talked about but we don't spend a lot of time thinking or talking about it," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said of a No. 1 seed possibility."We talk about it in terms of being an opportunity to go out and have our best practice of the year or play our best game of the year. We understand we still have three games left in the regular season and if we look past that then all the conversation about No. 1 seeds will end really fast. Hopefully, we'll be having this conversion on the morning of Selection Sunday. That's when it will really matter."
Kansas State hosts No. 22 Missouri on Saturday night, then visits No. 1 Kansas next Wednesday night before finishing the regular season by hosting Iowa State on March 6. Sweeping those three games would strengthen the Wildcats' argument for a top seed, particularly if they went on to win a couple of games in the Big 12 tournament.
Martin will not put it past his team.
"We have a special group of kids," he said. "They are great to be around. They're driven, they're focused and it's fun to coach them. With that being said, we've still got a lot of work to do but I really believe these kids are capable of doing anything."
Bearded junior guard Jacob Pullen is leading the way for Kansas State as he is averaging 18.8 points, 2.5 rebounds,3.8 assists and 30.9 minutes a game and senior guard Denis Clemente is averaging 16.0/2.4/4.1/33.5. They have been the heart and soul of the Wildcats.
"We're a mentally tough team and Jacob and Denis are a big reason why because they are men," Martin said. "They are great players and great leaders. Then you have (junior forward Curtis) Kelly, who is a fourth-year guy in our program and we have a lot of experience. That's why I've had a lot of faith in this team since Day One. We have a veteran nucleus of players who have been around, gone through the growing pains and have been willing to put in the hard work that it takes to be successful in what I feel is the best league in the country."
Kelly has been Kansas State's unsung hero with an 11.5/6.4/1.4/23.8 line while excelling in the tempo-free statistics as he is 53rd in the nation in block percentage (8.5), 59th in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.5) and 75th in offensive rebounding percentage (13.5). Sophomore forward Jamar Samuels has averages of 11.8/5.2/1.0/23.3.
Kansas State beat Texas on Jan. 18 when the Longhorns were No. 1 in the AP. While that game (televised by ESPN on Big Monday) got the Wildcats some national recognition, they have flown under the radar for a top-10 team from a power conference. However, Martin knows that Kansas State could be on everyone's minds with a strong run in March.
The Wildcats have been to the NCAA Tournament just once in the last 13 years, advancing to the second round in 2008.
"You've seen so many teams from Big 12 get to the Final Four, the Elite Eight, the Sweet 16 over the last 10 years," Martin said. "It's great to see and it speaks well of our conference. We haven't been part of that and we would like to join in the fun."
Pac-10 Showdown Saturday
It may not be a epic battle of two heavyweights but the stage is set for a big showdown in the Pacific-10 on Saturday night when first-place California (19-9, 11-5) hosts second-place Arizona State (20-8, 10-5). The Golden Bears can clinch their first conference title in 50 years and they are poised to break through during a season in which the Pac-10 does not have a team in the top 25 in the AP poll or on The List.
However, California coach Mike Montgomery bristles at the idea that his team leading the Pac-10 going into the penultimate weekend of the season is not so impressive. The critics also point out that a conference title might not be enough to keep this from being considered a disappointing season for the Bears, who were No. 12 in the pre-season version of The List.
“Well, we are just trying to win as many games as we can," Montgomery said. "We are in the best position we have been in for awhile. I still think 18 games against the same opponents is the best way you can possibly have for a competitive schedule and competitive environment and competitive balance. We have certainly had some disappointments, so we are just trying to do the best job we can. Every question ever asked starts out being negative so I don’t know how to answer those questions, mostly.”
Montgomery dismisses the idea that his team was unable to handle the pre-season expectations. He points to California having the eighth-strongest schedule in the country according to the RPI.
"The four teams we lost to on the road outside the conference are all ranked in the (AP) top 10," Montgomery said, referring to Syracuse, Ohio State, New Mexico and Kansas. "We were minus personnel in those games so I don’t know if we competed or presented ourselves the best we could. What everybody else wants to think, they can think. We just get on the practice floor and practice every day.”
California beat Arizona State 78-70 in Tempe on Jan. 28 as Jamal Boykin scored 32 effective points and grabbed 10 rebounds and Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher had 25 effective points each. The Sun Devils were topped by Eric Boateng's 23 effective points and Ty Abbott added 22.
“They are a good offensive team," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said of California. "They have guys who demand constant vigilance and they have guys who demand a second defender at times. They are a really good offensive basketball team and they are a difficult team for us to defend, whether it be inside or outside."
Mountain West Powers Clash
There will another big game in the West on Saturday as Brigham Young (26-3, 11-2) hosts New Mexico (26-3, 12-2) with first place in the Mountain West Conference on the line. The Lobos have won 12 straight games, all inside the conference, to set an MWC record.
"We've won 12 in a row and we're basically tied for first place," New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. "That tells you how tough this league is."
No. 8 Brigham Young and No. 12 New Mexico are the class of the MWC. However, the two teams tied for third place, San Diego State and UNLV, also have legitimate hopes of making the NCAA Tournament. What makes the Lobos being in this position so impressive is that they have only one senior and were picked to finish fifth the coaches' pre-season poll while the Cougars were chosen as the favorites.
New Mexico beat Brigham Young 76-72 at home on Jan. 27 behind Dairese Gary's 19 effective points. Jimmer Fredette had 20 effective points and seven assists for the Cougars.
"New Mexico might be the hottest team in the country," Brigham Young coach Dave Rose said. "Steve and has staff have done a great job with that team. You could tell early in the year, about the sixth or seventh game, it was going to be a really great team with the way he was incorporating the new guys and the way his young guys had improved from the experience they gained last season."
Butler Back on the Rise
Butler was talked about in the preseason as a dark-horse Final Four team and was No. 9 on the first edition of The List. Those conversations ended in December when the Bulldogs lost to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown and UAB to drop out of the polls.
However, Butler is looking like it might be ready to make some noise in the NCAAs as it takes a 17-game winning streak, the longest in the nation, into tonight's regular-season finale at Valparaiso. That has improved the Bulldogs' record to 25-4 and they will host the Horizon League tournament next week in Indianapolis.
Butler dusted Siena 70-53 last Saturday at Hinkle Field House in one of the weekend's marquee BracketBuster games. It gave the Bulldogs three victories against team in the top 50 of the RPI as they also beat Ohio State and Xavier at home in December.
"If you're going to beat them, you almost have to play a perfect game," Siena coach Fran McCaffery said.
Butler is No. 17 on The List and would seemingly put itself in position to get a high seed in the NCAAs should it win the conference tournament. However, the Bulldogs insist they are not thinking about their potential draw in the field of 65 yet.
"We're going to let everyone else worry about that," sophomore forward Gordon Hayward said. "We're really just trying to get better every single day. And that starts tomorrow."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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