After barely sneaking into the 2017 NCAA Tournament as a First Four participant and 11-seed, Kansas State again finds itself balancing on the bubble as the season's home stretch fast approaches.
For now, the Wildcats appear to be on the right side of that crest. Pick a pundit, almost any pundit, and K-State seems well positioned to do the Dance for a fourth time in six seasons under Bruce Weber.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Wildcats penciled in as a 10-seed against Rhode Island in the opening round. CBS Sports' Jerry Palm has K-State back in the First Four, again as an 11-seed but this time squaring off with Virginia Tech. SB Nation also has K-State among the field's last four.
Weber obviously agrees with those experts, a firm believer that his Wildcats are worthy of an NCAA Tournament berth. But with the second half of the Big 12 season about to begin, Weber also knows K-State's tenuous situation easily could become untenable.
"I don’t think there’s any doubt in our mind (that we're a tournament team), but we’ve got to finish the job and have a good run here in the second part of the Big 12," Weber said. "It’s up to us. We’ve got great opportunities ahead of us.
"I think we’re good enough, I think we’ve beaten some good teams, but we’ve got some opportunities to beat some other good teams and leave no question."
The first of those opportunities comes at 3 p.m. Saturday when the Wildcats (16-6, 5-4 Big 12) play No. 15 West Virginia (16-6, 5-4) at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, W.Va.
The Mountaineers climbed as high as No. 2 nationally earlier this season but have lost three straight and five of their past six with Wednesday's 93-77 drubbing at Iowa State. The Mountaineers also have shown a propensity to lose big leads in recent weeks, squandering double-digit advantages against Texas Tech, Kansas and Kentucky.
"Obviously they’ve had some struggles," Weber said.
For whatever reason, those struggles coincided with the Jan. 13 return of forward Esa Ahmad, who missed the first half of WVU's season while serving an academic suspension. Ahmad was West Virginia's second-leading scorer a year ago at 11.3 points, but his results have been mixed this season. His scoring has ranged from 18 points against Tech and 17 Wednesday night at ISU to a pair of scoreless outings versus TCU and Kentucky.
Guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles lead a balanced WVU roster that features seven players averaging eight or more points. Carter averages 17.4 points, Miles 12.8 despite missing the Iowa State contest due to illness, and the Mountaineers' defense continues to lead the Big 12 in steals and turnover margin.
The Wildcats understand the difficulties the Mountaineers pose after falling to them in the second league game of the season, 77-69. Teddy Allen scored 22 points and Lamont West added 19 for WVU, which forced 15 turnovers and limited K-State to 35.7 percent shooting.
"We anticipate a tough game," said Weber, noting that his Wildcats were "very hurried, very rushed" in the first contest. "We’ve got to learn from it, be a little more patient, make that extra pass and hopefully make shots. They force you to play basketball at their tempo, and when you can make shots against them, you can usually have some success."
Success. Remember, that is exactly what the Wildcats need down the stretch to solidify their NCAA Tournament prospects.
They soon will benefit from the return of junior guard Kamau Stokes, who could see limited action against the Mountaineers after missing the past four weeks with a broken foot. But with or without Stokes, the Wildcats have work to do — work that starts Saturday in Morgantown.
They begin the second half of league play tied with WVU for fourth place in the Big 12, two games behind Kansas and a game behind Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
At minimum, they have 10 more games to polish a resume that includes an RPI of 43 and quality wins against the likes of Oklahoma, TCU and Georgia. Ten more games to leave no doubt.
"Every one’s a great opportunity to help your cause," Weber said.