Forget the Big 12 record. Dismiss the seven-game losing streak and the three-game suspension of Marcus Smart and the losses that occurred without him in the lineup.
Oklahoma State's season has begun anew with two tune-up wins over Texas Tech and TCU in advance of Saturday's showdown with Kansas, a Big Monday home finale for Smart against Kansas State and a final road game against surging Iowa State on March 8.
If you want to know when the Cowboys fate will be decided then look no further than the next eight days. Sure, Oklahoma State will have opportunities in the Big 12 tournament, but some advance work must be done before arriving in Kansas City, Mo.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford knows the stakes. He told his team the Texas Tech game was “a must-win game. We didn't have a choice. We had no choice but to band together, rely on each other. We got away from that.”
Ford said the Cowboys have suddenly embraced the desperate situation they're in at this point in the season. In the past two wins, Ford said, the team was less “disjointed,” the defense has tightened and the assists have gone up.
Smart was allowed to practice during his suspension. His numbers since his return scream of a player who is locked in like never before: 17 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals at TCU; 16 points, 3 rebounds, 10 assists and 6 steals in the win over Texas Tech.
“He came back doing all the things that made him one of the best players in the country in filling out the stat sheet,” Ford said. “I started to see a difference when he was sitting out. He had some of his best practices of the year when he was on the scout team. He had a really, really good mindset. You could see how motivated he was.”
This has been a turbulent season for Oklahoma State and Smart, to say the least. The season started fresh with a 39-point performance from Smart and a drubbing of Memphis. Losing to Memphis two weeks later in the Orlando Old Spice Classic hurt, but didn't really do any damage. The hurt came when the top big man Michael Cobbins went down with an Achilles injury before the Big 12 opener at Kansas State and a backup guard Stevie Clark was arrested on marijuana possession and later dismissed. The Cowboys lost that game and then sputtered along, despite winning four of their next five. That run preceded the seven-game losing streak.
“When we lost Cobbins, we had no adjustment, we had to prepare so quickly,” Ford said. “That was tough. That's when we got disjointed and everyone was thinking about them. We've come together pretty good. We had no choice. Everyone has a little more of a smile on their face when they're playing. The guys aren't concerned with the individual game. They're only worried about the team.”
Ford is not naive about Saturday's game against Kansas. It will take an “incredible effort,” to beat the reigning Big 12 champs, who are peaking at the right time.
“We'll have to play our best basketball game of the year,” the Cowboys coach said. “They legitimately have a chance to win the national title. Every guy must bring their best game. We can't pick and choose. They took it to us in the first half [when the Jayhawks were up 17 before winning by two at Kansas].”
Ford, however, isn't sweating his team’s bid just yet. The RPI/BPI is solid, despite a 6-9 conference record. He is convinced the selection committee will look at the season as a whole, which includes a win over Colorado when the Buffaloes had Spencer Dinwiddie, and the losses without Smart, two of which were on the road.
“I still feel we're in good shape if we win some games,” Ford said.
But this season, like no other, has worn on Ford.
“There's no question,” he said. “We went through a tough stretch. We had injuries, had to dismiss a player, and a suspension. Those three or four weeks take years off your life. I'm proud how our team handled it. Every game came down to the last possessions and literally two games down to the last minute and one to the last 30 seconds. That takes a toll. I'm proud of this team. They continued to fight and had a great attitude sticking together. But it does take a toll on you.”