By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
There a saying in PGA golf that feels similar to how the Billikens game with Kansas State later today feels. You can’t win the tournament in your first round, but you can certainly lose it.
The Billikens, as it stands right now, are in a bit of a limbo in terms of their candidacy for the NCAA tournament. They aren’t quite on the bubble, but they are a few good wins away from deserving that distinction.
Realistically K-State is not an opponent that is going to move the needle in terms of potential at large bid. They have had a disappointing non-conference schedule. Losing bad games to Bradley, Pittsburg, Mississippi State, and Marquette, and they are about to go through a gauntlet of a schedule in the Big 12. By the end of the season, K-State could be a team ranked in the 200’s rather than at 120, which they are at in the NET entering today.
What this all means to say is, a win over K-State by no means gets you into the at-large bid conversation. But, a loss to K-State will undoubtedly take you out of it. This afternoon’s game has become a sort of a must-win for the Billikens and a tone-setter for the rest of the season. A win over Seton Hall or Auburn would have firmly placed SLU in that conversation. Still, without those wins, they need every other win they can get and cannot afford a stumble along the way.
If the Billikens win over K-State, they will essentially enter conference play with an opportunity to play themselves into an At-Large bid. The A-10 is talented enough and deep enough to make this possible this year, whereas, in years past, the opportunities to do so were not there. A loss would likely lead them to a situation where only a conference tournament championship would be sufficient for a bid to the dance.
It is essential to mention that despite my gloom about the ramifications of a Billikens loss, the Kansas State Wildcats are a good team. They will give SLU a battle in every sense of the word. This is not as if the Billikens are playing the bottom tier team; the Wildcats have the talent, and no team coming from a power 5 conference can be taken lightly. K-State head coach Bruce Weber has put together what may be the best man-to-man defense the Bills will face all year, and STL native Xavier Sneed is one of the best passing forwards (and a future first-round draft pick) according to Travis Ford.
The opening point spread for the game ranges from an even spread to a 1-point favorite for K-State, the game is expected to be tight as can be. Even more so, considering that Hasahn French and Gibson Jimerson are still regarded as game-time decisions and could, therefore, be losing two of its most pivotal players. It’s very possible that the Billikens will be severely understaffed for the second time this week only this time the margin for error is far smaller.
On the floor for the K-State Wildcats, two men carry most of the load in terms of minutes played and usage percentage. Travis Ford has already mentioned the St. Louis native in Xavier Sneed, the 6’5” small forward who, in addition to leading his team in scoring, is also a premier passer. The second of the dynamic duo is junior point guard Cartier Diarra. Who is second in every relevant offense category on the Wildcats except Assists, where he leads the team by just over 40 total assists and averages 6.3 a night.
What stands out about the two is how the roster is constructed to flow around them. They are the only two players on the team to have above a 60% minutes usage, so the Billikens can expect to see them virtually all game with the other three positions rotating between around seven guys they usually play. And while nobody on the team is defensively a slouch, the offensive skill set does take a bit of a drop off after those top two guys.
K-States defense is one of the best in the country, being ranked 24th in the nation by the KenPom. They will want to play a similar style of basketball as the Bills, challenging them physically on and off the ball. What will most likely transpire later today is an extremely gritty, defensive affair between two programs who specialize in physical defense. Unless one team is really able to get it going from deep or find enough ways to break up the man-to-man defense, everyone can expect a low scoring affair.
The Billikens have set themselves up for success this season by competing against strong teams and winning the games they are supposed to. When the season started, this wasn’t a game that they were ‘supposed to win,’ but now it is. They’ve played up to their potential, and they can head into the holiday break with a chance at the big dance if they put this one away.
But by no means will it be easy.
Tip-off for the Billikens is 6pm central time at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. While the game will be played at a neutral site, it is officially a home game for the Wildcats and a road game for the Billikens, all of which are important for the NET. The game will be available on ESPN+ and 106.5 the Arch on the Radio with Bob Ramsey and Earl Austin Jr on the call.