College Basketball Final Four Dark Horse Contenders: Why Kansas State is Undervalued
Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images. Pictured: Jerome Tang (Kansas State)
When looking for basketball programs poised for a run to the Final Four, Kansas State is far from the first name to mind, even among Big 12 teams.
When you add on a first-time head coach in his first year with the program and the fact that the Big 12 has a chance to be one of the best conferences we’ve ever seen from top to bottom, the Wildcats seem even less likely.
Looking at its resume through the first half of the season, however, Kansas State feels undervalued. If you blindly guessed the Final Four odds for the Wildcats based on their record and who they have beaten, you’d surely expect to see a number shorter than +2000.
Kansas State is currently KenPom’s 26th-ranked team. Bart Torvik’s T-Rank is even higher on the Wildcats, ranking them 22nd. Those numbers are based on a 14-1 record, with six wins over top 100 competition, including three straight big victories over West Virginia, Texas and Baylor.
Diving deeper into Kansas State’s success this season, the path for the Wildcats to the Final Four becomes even more viable.
Kansas State Will Be Battle Tested
The Wildcats have been strong against a mixed bag of opponents so far this season, yet the gauntlet of the Big 12 stands before them.
Based on KenPom’s ratings, Kansas State’s final game against a team outside college basketball’s top 60 squads has already happened (December 21’s win over Radford).
In fact, KenPom has the entire Big 12 ranked 41st or better right now, with a game against Florida in the Big 12/SEC Challenge as the “easiest” game left for Kansas State.
The schedule is an absolute beast that could leave Kansas State bruised by March.
I think the Wildcats are more likely to show themselves as battle tested and capable of winning games against good teams in tough environments.
Wildcats Have Star Power
The top end of Kansas State’s roster can compete with the best teams in the nation.
Markquis Nowell stands at just 5-foot-8, but has a big game, ranking second nationally in assist rate. His ability to create space for teammates with dribble penetration — combined with a court vision not often seen in a player his size — makes the Wildcats’ offense thrive.
JUCO transfer Nae’Qwan Tomlin brings the size and drive that keeps K-State’s frontcourt competitive against the nation’s best teams.
The biggest name on the roster, though, is Keyontae Johnson. The one-time Florida Gator has resurfaced in Manhattan, Kansas after leaving Gainesville following a full-year away from basketball after collapsing on the court mid-game.
The swingman is now averaging 18.8 points and 7.1 rebounds this season, leading the K-State scoring attack.
He’s able to score at every level of the defense and presents a mismatch against smaller or bigger players who try to guard him.
He could re-emerge as a household name with a March to remember.
Jerome Tang Can Win From Sidelines
A first-year head coach is a scary thing for a team with April aspirations. Jerome Tang, in his first year leading a program after many by Scott Drew’s side at Baylor, looks fully ready for the role.
His Wildcats compete all over the court and, best of all, share the ball with one another. Kansas State ranks in the top five in the country in assist rate. That level of ball movement can exploit whatever flaw might arise in an opposing defense.
In a single elimination tournament in March, sharing the ball to find the right opportunity on offense — against a variety of defensive styles and strategies — can pay massive dividends.
Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans have ranked in the top 20 nationally in assist rate every year since 2014, while also often outplaying their seed and making deep runs in the tournament.
Tang is lightyears away from being compared to a legend like Izzo, but there’s no question he has Kansas State on the right track with a bright future in 2023.