MANHATTAN, Kan. — There is clear and telling frustration in Bill Snyder’s voice as the 76-year-old coach steps back from his wooden podium, hours after Kansas State lost its fifth straight game.
A reporter had just suggested the Wildcats are entering the easy part of their schedule.
"We’ve lost five ballgames in a row," Snyder replied. "What do you mean, ‘Easy part of our schedule’? We don’t have an easy part of our schedule. There isn’t any. We haven’t proven that we can win in the conference. There isn’t anybody easy."
In a month that is already shaping up as an elimination tournament in the Big 12 title race — not to mention matchups with College Football Playoff implications — Kansas State (3-5, 0-5) is the anomaly with four games left in its season.
The conference’s intentionally back-loaded schedule came at the expense of the Wildcats, who played four top 20 opponents in their first five games — teams that are a combined 33-2 now.
Kansas State’s remaining opponents are a combined 12-24, beginning with Saturday’s trip to Texas Tech and including a game with winless Kansas.
"I could understand if we were 8-0 going into these last four games. Maybe then we’d fall into that category of taking teams lightly," Wildcats center Dalton Risner said. "If anything, they should be taking us lightly. We’re 0-5 in the Big 12. We’re at the bottom of the list. We’ve got everything to prove, so we need to go in there and start getting some wins."
There is still plenty on the line for Kansas State, too.
The program hasn’t missed out on a bowl game since 2009, the first season for Snyder after a brief retirement. And even the year they missed a bowl game, the Wildcats wound up 6-6.
Kansas State hasn’t had a losing record since the final year of the Ron Prince regime, when it went 5-7. And the 0-5 start to Big 12 play is the worst since Snyder took over in 1989.
"We’ve got our backs against the wall in regards to a bowl opportunity," Snyder said. "Every youngster in here, there’s not one of them who haven’t been to a bowl game in their tenure here. I think that has some motivational aspects to it."
There is also a shared feeling within the locker room that Kansas State is on the brink of breaking through. The Wildcats led Oklahoma State before a second-half collapse in a 36-34 loss, and led TCU by 18 at the break before falling 52-45 a few weeks ago.
Last Thursday, the Wildcats turned the ball over late in a 31-24 loss to Baylor.
But by the Wildcats’ own admission, there are no moral victories. Those losses, however close they were, only exemplify a troubling trend: Kansas State hasn’t been able to finish.
"The capabilities are there, I’ve always believed that, but you have to do something with it," Snyder said. "That means you have to develop it. That falls into my lap. I have to help those young guys understand what it takes in order to get off the mat and win a ballgame."
It’s a trend the Wildcats hope to reverse against the Red Raiders (5-5, 2-5). But if they have learned anything through their first eight games, it’s that nothing will come easy in the final four, regardless of records or statistics.
"It’s going to be tough, but we know we’re a good team," Risner said. "Our record definitely doesn’t show what we’re capable of or what we’ve done this year. We lost and that’s fair enough — we don’t have moral victories — but we know how good we are.
"We’re still going to make a bowl game. It’s not if we make a bowl game, it’s when we make a bowl game, what are we going to do with it? We’re going to finish it out and do a good job."