Bears, Ags out to prove worth in tourney
In the game of perception and the polls, No. 9 Kansas State (24-6, 11-5 Big 12) fared much better than No. 20 Baylor (24-6, 11-5) and No. 24 Texas A&M (22-8, 11-5).
Even though all three teams finished with the same conference record and they go into this week's Big 12 Championship with K-State as the No. 2 seed, Baylor the No. 3 seed and A&M the No. 4 seed, the interesting thing is the writers who vote in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the coaches who cast ballots in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 poll saw eye-to-eye in determining the wide gap in the rankings (rankings used above are ESPN/USA Today).
The Wildcats jumped into both polls on Dec. 14, debuting at No. 22 in the coaches poll and No. 17 in the AP poll. From there it was a steady climb up as high as No. 5 until consecutive losses to end the regular-season set K-State back to No. 9 entering this week's Big 12 Championship.
Baylor enters its ninth consecutive week in the AP poll, having bobbed between Nos. 20-24, despite closing the season with a four-game win streak. A&M made the earliest jump of the three into the polls on Nov. 30 and reached as high as No. 16 in the AP poll (Dec. 7) and No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today poll (Dec. 7) before falling back and eventually out. The Aggies didn't get back into the polls until Feb. 15 and have spent the last four weeks shuffling between Nos. 22 and 24, despite winning four of their last five games.
So what separates the three? Not RPI. According to RPI rankings at NCAAsports.com, K-State holds down No. 6, Baylor is No. 8 and A&M is No. 12. Virtually no difference.
Let's examine head-to-head matchups: K-State has the edge. It crushed A&M at home early on and nipped Baylor by two in the final 10 seconds in Waco. The Bears and Aggies split their two-game season series.
In conference, K-State beat Texas when it was still No. 1, lost by two at home to No. 1 Kansas and was blown out at Kansas. A&M split with Texas and let one get away at home against Kansas. Baylor, which has not lost this season by more than seven points, beat Texas twice and took Kansas to the wire in Lawrence. The Bears lost at Colorado at the beginning of the Big 12 season and K-State was shocked at home by Iowa State to end the season.
OK, how about non-conference wins? K-State's best wins came at home against Xavier and at Alabama (in Mobile). It lost to Mississippi (in Puerto Rico).
Baylor lost to Alabama in Florida and beat Xavier at the same tournament. The Bears won at Arizona State, at Arkansas (at North Little Rock) and at South Carolina.
A&M beat Clemson and Minnesota and lost to West Virginia in California. The Aggies lost to New Mexico in Houston and at Washington, the game in which senior guard Derrick Roland was lost for the season with a gruesome broken leg early in the second half.
Baylor coach Scott Drew has an idea as to why K-State rose so high while the Bears and Aggies have been stuck despite similar resumes.
"It's extremely hard for any school in the Big 12 to put together a consistent win streak because the competition is so good, so it's hard to move up the polls when it's tough to get consecutive wins in the Big 12," Drew said. "Voters tend to not move you up when you're 1-1 during the week instead of 2-0."
Fair point. And he might be right. Of the three teams, K-State enjoyed the longest in-conference win streak of seven games right in the heart of the conference schedule. The run included wins over Nebraska twice, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Missouri. A&M went 8-0 against those teams, but it's longest win streak was four games. Baylor went 7-1 against those teams, but it's best run was four consecutive wins to end the regular season.
So while K-State didn't lose for three weeks during the meat of the season and rode the polls to No. 5, A&M and Baylor, while steadily winning, weren't putting together eye-popping streaks and remained relatively stagnant in the polls. Those rankings could have a say in NCAA Tournament seeding and that can make the difference in a one-weekend-and-done or a trip to the Sweet 16.
"It's all part of the process," A&M coach Mark Turgeon said. "I think it takes time, nationally (to gain respect in the polls). A&M and Baylor were down -- we've been back longer than they have, we're going on five years now, hopefully, in the NCAA Tournament -- but it takes time. You can't get caught up in that. You always have a chance to earn respect and we have a chance over the next few weeks to do that."
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