<
>

Saddle Up: Kansas State's last stand

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is already getting a ton of email from Kansas fans.

West Virginia at No. 20 Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Looking for bubble intrigue? This isn't your game.

No, on a night when one of the Big 12's bubbliest will fight for its at-large life -- see Kansas State at Kansas below -- the opening act doesn't promise much in the way of seasonal intrigue. Both West Virginia and Syracuse are likely NCAA tournament inclusions; it would take massive collapses for either to end up missing March Madness.

But that doesn't mean this game doesn't have its various degrees of attraction. Each team is trying to get its eighth Big East win; each team is in some ways still figuring itself out; and each team is trying to build momentum for a late-season run. Syracuse is trying to avoid its worst home losing streak since 1962 and its seventh loss in its last nine games. West Virginia is trying to avoid its third straight loss to a ranked Big East foe. The Orange are still searching for competent guard play and trying to shore up their suddenly leaky 2-3 zone. The Mountaineers are still looking for ways to score that don't totally hinge on their ability to grab offensive rebounds.

In other words, this game may not be pretty, and it may not be Pittsburgh-Villanova, and it may not come with too much bubble intrigue attached. But it is still a very solid Big East game. If you like physical play, rebounding, shot-blocking, strategic give-and-take and -- last but not least -- watching college hoops teams trying to come together in a pressure-packed, klieg-lights-on scenario -- then you'll probably want to tune in at 7 p.m. ET tonight. At the very least, this one should be interesting.

No. 1 Kansas at Kansas State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Then, after enjoying the WVU-Cuse appetizer, you can move to the main course. Because at 9 p.m. ET in Manhattan, Kan., the Kansas State Wildcats will make their final stand.

That sounds dramatic, but it's true. The Wildcats' devastating two-point loss at Colorado on Saturday -- which featured a last-second Rodney McGruder 3 that was overruled after the referees checked the courtside replay monitors -- put this team closer to the brink of the NIT than at any other point this season. Our own Joe Lunardi still has Kansas State in the tournament, but the Wildcats are a No. 11 seed with a disconcerting downward-facing red arrow next to their name, and really it's still a soft-bubble miracle Kansas State is even in the running for a bid at all. K-State's RPI is OK, but it has no wins in the RPI top 50 and a sub-.500 mark in Big 12 play. That sure doesn't look like an NCAA tournament team, does it?

Which is to say, Kansas State needs this win. Badly. The Wildcats won't get a better chance to notch a huge résumé-boosting victory the rest of the season. (a Feb. 26 home date with Missouri is looking ripe for the picking, but the Tigers aren't exactly the Jayhawks when it comes to "signature win" prestige.) They'll have the benefit of a raucous home environment in the Octagon of Doom. They'll have their hated dominant rivals on the other side. They'll have their defense -- the one non-rebounding area of this team that hasn't been a total letdown -- primed for the unique challenge presented by KU's nigh-unstoppable array of capable guards and versatile forwards.

And, perhaps most importantly, they'll have the benefit of knowing this is it. This is the game. If ever there was a time to wholly reverse this disappointing, distraction-prone season, this is it. If ever there was a time for Jacob Pullen to will his team to a win (not to mention avoid his nightmare NIT scenario), this is it. If ever there was a time to announce that the preseason Big 12 title pick and nationally ranked top-five team isn't dead yet, this is it.

The intelligent hoops observer still likes Kansas to win here. Even without Josh Selby and Thomas Robinson, this Jayhawks team is still very good, and Kansas State has been so comprehensively ugly on offense this season that it's hard to see them getting anything easy against Kansas' consistent D. But the pressure will be on. Frank Martin's entire reputation is suddenly on the line. His team is backed into a corner. These Wildcats are wildly desperate.

This Kansas State team has let its fans down time and again this season. The time for turnaround, if it still exists, can't come any later than tonight. This is it.