College Basketball Nation: Markel Brown


SAN DIEGO -- In a matter of months, it all crumbled. More like the brick exterior of an old church than a cookie. A gradual but obvious decline.

Marcus Smart returned to Oklahoma State to rid his program of the lingering stench that arose in the weeks that followed last season’s opening-round loss to Oregon in the NCAA tournament. He wanted to refine his skills in hopes of securing a lengthier future in the NBA, too.

But Smart had the chance to take a top-three slot in the draft a year ago. He came back to help his teammates -- his brothers -- make a run in March. To pursue a national championship.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Gregory BullOklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, who scored 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds vs. Gonzaga, is likely headed for the 2014 NBA draft.
And he could see that opportunity evaporating against No. 8 seed Gonzaga on Friday afternoon. But he couldn’t plug the leak.

Seconds later, it was over. And then, Smart walked off the court.

“It’s very difficult,” said Smart, who finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 steals and 1 block. “This team has been through a lot this season, a lot of downs and a lot of ups, and it’s especially difficult for me -- Markel [Brown] being a senior -- words can’t explain it right now.”

It was likely Smart’s last collegiate game, as most expect him to turn pro. He refused to discuss his future in detail after the game, but he suggested that the loss wouldn’t change that plan.

But the game, an 85-77 loss for No. 9 seed Oklahoma State, was also the conclusion of a bizarre season for the program. The Pokes entered the season tied with Syracuse in eighth place in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.

That position seemed solid. With Smart, Brown and Le’Bryan Nash anchoring the team, Oklahoma State had the look of a Big 12 and national title contender.

From there, calamity ensued. Big man Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending injury in late December. In early February, Stevie Clark was dismissed by coach Travis Ford following an arrest. Smart shoved a Texas Tech fan shortly after that and earned a three-game suspension and national scrutiny. Plus, the team endured a seven-game losing streak.

And it was over, it seemed.

But somehow, the Pokes fought back and became just the second team since 1985 to secure an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament after suffering a seven-game losing streak, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that’s notable, considering their challenges.

“In a sense, you could say that because 64 teams make it to this point and to be considered one of those teams is always an accomplishment, to be a part of this tournament,” said Brown, who finished with 20 points. “We fell short of our goals, but it’s always a positive when you get into the NCAA tournament.”

They could not escape their past in San Diego, though. Without Cobbins, the Cowboys were futile in their attempt to contain 7-foot-1 big man Przemek Karnowski (15 points, 10 rebounds). They couldn’t stop Gary Bell Jr. (17 points) or Kevin Pangos (26 points, 12-for-14 from the charity stripe), either.

Smart played 38 minutes even though he picked up four fouls. Nash, the team’s best threat inside, played just 17 minutes due to foul trouble.

[+] EnlargeMarkel Brown and Kevin Pangos
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsIn his final game for the Cowboys, senior Markel Brown scored 20 points.
The Cowboys weren’t big enough, deep enough or strong enough to stop a Gonzaga squad that shot 9-for-18 beyond the arc. Coach Mark Few’s program is 6-0 now against the Cowboys and will advance to face No. 1 seed Arizona Sunday at Viejas Arena.

The postgame news conference for the Cowboys felt like a funeral. Brown fought off tears from the podium. Phil Forte III buried his head in his hands.

Coaches, team officials and trainers stood along the concrete wall outside the locker room in silence.

But Smart told the press that he had no regrets about returning for his sophomore season. A day earlier, he’d discussed the bond that developed within the team as it endured the drama. And even though Oklahoma State fell short of its dreams, Smart said he was proud of its effort Friday and throughout the season.

“I definitely think I left it all out there,” Smart said. “This team left it all out there.”

And that’s not debatable. Oklahoma State’s determination cannot be questioned.

But the season will end in mystery. The Cowboys left it out there, but how much more would they have left right now if everything had come together instead of fallen apart midway through the season?

We’ll never know because it’s over.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In a game it couldn’t afford to lose, Oklahoma State waded through the same funk that confounded Texas Tech in the first matchup of the Big 12 tournament at the Sprint Center.

Then Markel Brown decided that he’d had enough of the nonsense. He could see the Cowboys needed help as their rushed attack matched Texas Tech’s vacant offense in the early stages of the sloppy game.

“Set up! Set up!” Brown yelled as Oklahoma State nearly tarnished another possession.

And that’s exactly what the Cowboys did. They relaxed and recovered. They moved the ball. They swarmed. They ran their stuff. Soon after, they erupted and closed the first half on a 34-11 run.

Brown hit 3-pointers. He made defensive stops. He pounded the rim on a reverse dunk that would make Dominique Wilkins blush.

That was the maneuver that will replay on “SportsCenter” and YouTube.

[+] EnlargeMarkel Brown
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsMarkel Brown's 18 first-half points made short work of Texas Tech and set Oklahoma State up to play top-seeded Kansas on Thursday.
“They threw a punch and we have to throw one back and keep fighting, and that's what we did,” said Brown, who scored 18 of his game-high 20 points in the first half of Oklahoma State’s 80-62 win over Texas Tech.

Oklahoma State, which will face top-seeded Kansas on Thursday, is in a solid position to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament largely because Marcus Smart has played like a lottery pick since his return from suspension. He scored 21 points in a March 1 win over Kansas. He had 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals in a victory against Kansas State two days later, then had 18 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 steals and a block on Wednesday night.

Only one team has ever secured an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament after enduring a seven-game losing streak -- Iowa State in 1987-88 -- per Elias Sports Bureau. Oklahoma State could become the second.

Smart’s contributions factor into that potential history, but Brown’s leadership matters, too. Maybe more.

“You know, it was tremendous on his part, especially everything that this team has been going through,” Smart said. “You know, we needed that type of leadership, him being the senior captain on this team. He stood up and took responsibility when we needed it. It not only helped him but helped his team in a variety of ways. We're playing better basketball and part of it is because of him.”

This Oklahoma State train could have -- check that, should have -- derailed weeks ago.

Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending foot injury in late January. Stevie Clark was dismissed a few weeks after that. Smart then shoved a fan and was suspended three games. A waterfall of losses followed.

And yet, the Cowboys remain in the NCAA tournament picture despite circumstances that have flattened many programs in the past.

The young men in the locker room will tell you that Brown’s tenacity and guidance were most encouraging as they stumbled toward the bottom of the Big 12.

“He was just playing hard as he can, trying to get a ‘W’ for us,” junior forward Le'Bryan Nash said. “And that’s what you learn from guys like that. I learn a lot from him. ... He wants to win so bad."

The significance of Brown’s place as the team’s sole senior was evident before the season even started. During the first pickup game the freshmen played against the team’s veterans, Brown warned the incoming players that the Big 12 would test them. He wanted them to know that the competition level had changed and they wouldn’t excel with the ease they enjoyed in high school.

And just as quickly as he startled them, he talked to them about their potential. He pulled Leyton Hammonds aside and reminded him that he’d come to Stillwater because he was capable of competing in the league.

It was a simple reassurance that shifted Hammonds’ outlook.

“He came up to me personally and was like ‘Look dude, you know what you can do, just play,’” Hammonds said. “He knows basketball and he’s a great teammate. For him to come up to me and say that, as a freshman, I was like, ‘This dude is the leader of the team because he came out of his way just to tell me that.’”

Those are the moments that don’t crack the nightly highlights.

But Brown does that, too.

He’s not just some glue guy. He’s an athletic wing who has adjusted to various roles, including starting point guard during Smart’s three-game suspension, and has stabilized the program on both ends of the court. He can frustrate you with his range. He can hurt you with jump shots in traffic. He can embarrass you with dunks that you see but can’t stop.

Of players used on 20 percent of their team’s possessions or more, Brown is second in the Big 12 with a 118.8 offensive rating, per ESPN Insider Ken Pomeroy. He boasts career highs in points per game (17.2), 3-point shooting (38 percent) and free throw success rate (78 percent).

“I think Markel Brown is one of the premier players in the country,” coach Travis Ford said. “What he does for our basketball team, we asked him to play three different positions. He played point guard probably 15 minutes of the game tonight. Obviously when Marcus was out, he played point guard for every game.”

Oklahoma State’s recovery is a rare story. But a win over Texas Tech won’t impress the selection committee or elevate its seed.

A victory against Kansas on Thursday, however, would. That’s the next step for a program that continues to battle and make the college basketball world forget about a slide that nearly ruined its aspirations.

Brown refused to let that happen.

“I think stepping up was crucial for me, because I've been in those situations before with this ballclub,” Brown said. “I've been in some tough situations, and I was able to fight out of it. So being there, to help them, cheer them on, to let them know that we can fight another day was huge for me because of the knowledge I have.”

Just one month ago, Oklahoma State visited Kansas and lost the kind of game that still managed to spark optimism. The Cowboys’ rallied from a 19-point deficit and fell just two points short in an 80-78 loss.

No one could have envisioned a seven-game losing streak back then.

A month ago, Marcus Smart was still a viable player of the year candidate and the Cowboys were still a formidable group. For much of the season they were a trendy pick to reach the Final Four.

They looked good in wins over Memphis, a full-strength Colorado, and Texas. And despite bumps along the way -- such as losing starting forward Michael Cobbins to injury and Stevie Clark to dismissal -- they kept the façade of holding it all together.

That’s no longer the case, as things continue to fall apart in Stillwater. Oklahoma State, which was once ranked in the top 10, might not even be a NCAA tournament team after Monday’s 70-64 overtime loss at Baylor.

[+] EnlargeMarkel Brown
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsMarkel Brown drove himself to a point of exhaustion against Baylor in a gutty 26-point, 45-minute effort.
The Bears, which overcame a five-game losing streak last month, have stopped their precipitous free fall, having pieced together a three-game winning streak. The win moved them ahead of OSU in the Big 12 standings and keeps their hopes of a NCAA berth alive.

The Cowboys have now lost seven consecutive games for the first time since the 1972-73 season. Three of those were without Smart, who will return to the lineup for a rematch against Texas Tech, as it was the loss in Lubbock that landed him a suspension in the first place. It was where Smart shoved a fan who was mouthing off in the stands during the final seconds of another frustrating loss.

The Cowboys were imploding before then, but in the chaos they maintain hope.

Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said his team had to find an identity while Smart was sidelined. What the Cowboys seemed to discover was toughness, even in defeat. They played Oklahoma to a 77-74 loss on Saturday.

They rallied in the first half against Baylor despite Le'Bryan Nash getting in early foul trouble. The Cowboys’ best frontcourt option played just six minutes of the first half while little-used reserves Christien Sager, Marek Soucek and Mason Cox all found themselves in the rotation.

For a moment, it seemed like the reserves would mask their shortcomings as the Cowboys led 33-28 at halftime and maintained the lead until about six minutes remained in regulation.

Freshman forward Leyton Hammonds, who played just six minutes the entire game, made the 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. It was just his third 3 all season.

Baylor, which was also ranked in the top 10 when league play started, was just as desperate as Oklahoma State for a win. And the Bears had a much deeper frontcourt to rely upon. They exploited an inside advantage, as forward Cory Jefferson scored 25 points and had 13 rebounds while center Isaiah Austin chipped in 12 points and 12 rebounds.

The Bears controlled the boards 51-36 and outscored the Cowboys 16-1 in second-chance points.

Oklahoma State tried to counter Baylor’s brawn with its backcourt.

Markel Brown, the Cowboys’ second-leading scorer, played all 45 minutes and scored a game-high 26 points. Brown seemed to cramp up on one defensive possession to the point in the second half that he was unable to lift himself from the ground. That wasn't enough to get him out of the game though.

Phil Forte played alongside Brown for all but one minute of the game, adding 20 points for the Cowboys. But no other player scored in double figures. The Cowboys needed one more player to score.

They will now regain that in Smart, who will rejoin a group of teammates who haven’t given up on the season.

The Cowboys close with Kansas and Kansas State at home before their regular-season finale at Iowa State. That’s three games that could boost their resume and earn them a bid. Judging by their recent games, don’t be surprised if they’re not done fighting yet.

Planning for Success: Big 12 speed

January, 27, 2014
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Just for kicks, let’s start with a quiz: Is Oklahoma State a better offensive or defensive team?

Last season, the answer was obvious: The Cowboys were defined by their defense. Nowhere was the impact of Marcus Smart’s arrival felt more acutely. In the matter of one season, Oklahoma State went from allowing nearly a point per possession to 0.90. The offense got better, but the gains were fractional compared to how Oklahoma State guarded.

This season, things are not so simple. Overall, Oklahoma State’s year-over-year efficiency leap on offense rivals 2012-13’s defensive jump. Meanwhile, the Cowboys' defense gives up 0.95 points per trip (adjusted, per kenpom.com) -- still very good, but a slight upward tick from last season.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtExpect Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State to push the pace against another team that likes to run, Oklahoma.
But! Since the start of Big 12 play, the Cowboys have played the league’s tightest defense and rank a mere fourth in points per possession on offense. Some of that has to do with having nearly a fourth of their shots blocked by Joel Embiid at Kansas, but still. Confusing, right? If you asked the opening question to a Magic 8 Ball, it would tell you to concentrate and try again.

Fortunately, one Cowboys trait has remained consistent all season: speed. Also fortunately, it’s one that Oklahoma happens to share and one that all but guarantees another gripping, up-and-down Big 12 affair Monday night in Norman, Okla. Because, believe it or not, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are more alike than different.

The Cowboys average a healthy 70.8 possessions per game. This season, Ken Pomeroy introduced possession length data into his team reports, which provides a fine-grained look at exactly how fast teams are on both ends of the floor. Oklahoma State wants to score in a hurry: It averages just 15.5 seconds per offensive possession, the 15th-shortest average in the country.

This all makes sense: Oklahoma State has Smart pushing the ball and Le’Bryan Nash, Markel Brown and Phil Forte filling in on the wings. Of course it wants to run. It also wants to slow opposing offenses down: Oklahoma State opponents take 18.3 seconds (rank: 272) to fully deliberate the best course of action. It is this ability to dictate games -- to push the pace on offense and then force a struggle on the return serve -- that makes playing Oklahoma State so challenging in the first place.

Meanwhile, in Norman, the Sooners’ success has been one of the surprises of the season. But it pales in comparison to the how. Lon Kruger’s reputation for smart, solid basketball teams -- teams that don’t hurt themselves with mistakes -- was well earned at UNLV, where Kruger’s teams rarely ranked above average in matters of pace.

His first two teams at Oklahoma largely followed that script. This season, the Sooners are positively run-and-gun. They average 72.9 possessions per contest and 1.17 points per trip, and they dispose of those possessions even faster than State -- in just 15.0 seconds, 10th fastest in college basketball. Much like the Cowboys, the Sooners also seek to delay opponents in defensive transition but they’re not nearly as good at it, which is among the reasons their defense is giving up 1.07 points per possession in Big 12 play.

That’s where the similarities stop. Both teams will be happy to play a fast-paced game. Both teams will look to score in transition and secondary breaks. Both teams will try to do that, all while halting the other. Thus far, though, there is no confusion about what Oklahoma is. It has to outscore you to beat you. Oklahoma State has more than one tool in its box -- and the best two-way point guard in the country to wield them.
Oklahoma State enters its Big 12 opener at Kansas State on Saturday trapped in drama created by a few recent developments.

On Tuesday, Travis Ford’s program announced that center and top shot-blocker Michael Cobbins will miss the rest of the season due to an Achilles injury. On Wednesday, backup point guard Stevie Clark was arrested for marijuana possession.

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla recently tweeted that a college coach’s greatest role is “crisis management coordinator.” Oklahoma State’s situation seems to back that statement, although Ford’s predicament is not necessarily a “crisis” at this point. Plus, he still has one of the best players in the game -- Marcus Smart -- leading his squad. And Smart’s teammates Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown are both elite talents.

But Cobbins was significant for a team that is currently 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. Oklahoma State’s greatest challenge in league play will be its limited size. That’s why the loss of Cobbins is such a blow for the program.

And Clark has averaged nearly 20 minutes per game for Oklahoma State. His 3.7 APG against 1.9 TPG comprises a better assist-to-turnover ratio than Smart’s (4.1 APG, 2.9 TPG). He also answers the most significant question each night about Smart. What happens if the sophomore star endures early foul trouble?

With Clark’s future in jeopardy and Cobbins out, Oklahoma State enters its matchup against Kansas State with questions that it can’t answer until tipoff. But this is a different team without Clark and Cobbins.

If Smart is on the floor, Oklahoma State is still a contender. Its road to the title, however, is more complicated now. Depending on what Ford does with his lineup, Nash could log more minutes inside. Sophomore Karami Murphy's time on the floor should increase, too. And sharpshooter Phil Forte will be a greater factor in the backcourt.

Oklahoma State can make these adjustments and win the Big 12. But the Pokes will be on the road against a Kansas State squad that hasn’t lost since Nov. 22 and owns a win over WCC contender Gonzaga.

With three or four potential contenders in the Big 12, one or two losses could separate the champ from the No. 2 team in the league. So an early stumble on Saturday could cost Oklahoma State down the road.

Oklahoma State’s most immediate concern, however, is its new reality and the pressure it will face on the road in its first game of conference action.

Weekend Homework: Don't miss Brown

December, 19, 2013
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Last season, as Marcus Smart revitalized Oklahoma State -- when the Cowboys defense went from one ranked outside the tempo-free top 100 to the 15th-best group in the country, and the team went from 15 wins to 24 — a fascinating little subplot emerged.

Actually, emerged isn't the word. "Existed" is more like it. Because while Smart soaked up all of the attention, and deservedly so, Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown, without whom the Cowboys would have been moribund on offense, flew disproportionately under the radar.

Let's not repeat that mistake.

[+] EnlargeMarkel Brown, Marcus Smart
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Smart has, to no one's surprise, stepped forward as a player-of-the-year candidate this season; he is playing more efficiently despite a greater share of the Cowboys' attack and he's every bit as good as he was (if not better) on the defensive end. He deserves his plaudits, and Oklahoma State appears to be a much better team on both ends of the floor. But the team's drastically improved offense from a year ago has as much, if not more, to do with Brown, who is playing the smoothest, most balanced and most effective offense of his career.

This has a lot to do with simple perimeter shooting. As a freshman, Brown shot 26.2 percent from 3-point range. As a sophomore, 31.9. Last season, as a junior, with nearly double the attempts (143) over the previous season (72), Brown boosted his percentage to 36.4. This season, he has shot 42.9 percent. That kind of leap in 3-point percentage might seem like an outlier for most players. But Brown's entire career 3-point shooting chart has comprised almost exactly that sort of year-over-year improvement. If he keeps it up, don't be surprised.

That accuracy has made Oklahoma State's offense go. Phil Forte and suspended freshman Stevie Clark have shot the ball better, yes, but neither player presents the kind of choice Brown, in his wiry and athletic frame, forces defenses into. He can spot up and shoot on the wing -- and he often does, frequently when the ball is swung from a penetrating Smart; 26 percent of Brown's possessions come from spot-ups, per Synergy data. But if the defense closes out, Brown can put it on the floor and get to the rim, or pull up, and his field goal percentage doesn't suffer no matter what he decides.

Combine that with his athleticism in transition and with his defense -- Brown is blocking more shots this year than ever before, too -- and you could quite easily argue that Brown has been better than his fêted point guard to date. (Not "more important," necessarily. "Better?" I can swish that around.)

Of course, paying attention to Brown might distract from another unsung piece of Oklahoma State's success, junior forward Le'Bryan Nash, currently having his most fulfilling season since arriving as a star prospect three years ago.

But that's homework for another weekend. As Oklahoma State prepares for Saturday night's 11:30 p.m. ET start against Colorado's big, physical perimeter at the MGM Grand, pay close attention to Brown -- he, more than any Cowboy save Smart, makes Travis Ford's team go.
1. The Anaheim Classic is going through some changes that should make it a more intimate event, building up toward a more unique championship day. The tournament, played over Thanksgiving weekend, has been at the Anaheim Convention Center, but has had plenty of sparsely populated games. So, the plan is to move the first two days of the tournament to Cal State-Fullerton's Titan Gym. The final day of the event will be played at the Honda Center in Anaheim to give it more of an elite ending. And to raise the profile of the event, the name will no longer be the Anaheim Classic but rather the Wooden Legacy. The first two rounds will be Nov. 28 and 29 with the championship day on Dec. 1. The tournament has headline teams in Creighton, San Diego State, Marquette, Arizona State and Miami with the College of Charleston, George Washington and the host Titans. Fullerton needs to take advantage of their homecourt and play well for two reasons -- to play rare higher-level games at home and to ensure the crowds are decent.

2. The cuts for the World University Games team playing in Russia could be some of the hardest for USA basketball. Junior national director Jim Boeheim of Syracuse will have a hard time whittling down this list. The team, which will train the last week of June in Colorado Springs, should be the overwhelming favorite in the event. But getting down to the cut list of 24 will be quite a chore for Boeheim and WUG coaches Bob McKillop (Davidson), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and John Beilein (Michigan). Here is the list: Eric Atkins (Notre Dame), Markel Brown (Oklahoma State), Deonte Burton (Nevada), Quinn Cook (Duke), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Davante Gardner (Marquette), Treveon Graham (VCU), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame), P.J. Hairston (North Carolina), A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Luke Hancock (Louisville), Joe Harris (UVA), Tyler Haws (BYU), Andre Hollins (Minnesota), Rodney Hood (Duke), Josh Huestis (Stanford), Cory Jefferson (Baylor), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Alex Kirk (New Mexico), Devyn Marble (Iowa), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Chasson Randle (Stanford), Will Sheehey (Indiana), Aaron White (Iowa), Kendall Williams (New Mexico).

3. The list will be cut down to 12. Everyone could use making the team to better themselves. But Hood could use it more than anyone else after sitting out last season as a transfer from Mississippi State. Hood needs game action before he starts to star for Duke. Fair, Grant, Hairston, Jefferson, McDermott and Payne all are trying out for the team after making the decision to return to school. The fact that two players from Indiana, Duke, Notre Dame, New Mexico and Iowa are on the first list is a sign about these three teams' future next season. Kirk and Grant have a chance to be headline players next season. So too, does White. The one player who could benefit as much as anyone is Ferrell, who will have to be even more of a playmaker next season without Victor Oladipo on his wing.

Video: Oklahoma State 78, Texas 65

March, 2, 2013
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Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash combined for 34 points as No. 15 Oklahoma State beat visiting Texas 78-65.

Video: Markel Brown's windmill dunk

March, 2, 2013
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Markel Brown throws down a two-hander for No. 15 Oklahoma State against visiting Texas.
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Travis Releford made good on this week’s promise.

After outlasting Oklahoma State 68-67 in two thrilling overtimes, neither the Kansas guard nor any of his teammates did backflips. And, as he predicted they would, the Jayhawks walked out of a sold-out Gallagher-Iba Arena in style -- once again in command of the Big 12 Conference race.

"[Revenge] played a little bit of a factor,” Releford said, “but our main goal is to just win the Big 12.”

Kansas made progress toward both, redressing its home loss to Oklahoma State earlier this season while hopping into the driver’s seat of the Big 12 title chase. The Jayhawks moved one game ahead of the Cowboys atop the Big 12 standings along with Kansas State, a team they have already swept.

[+] EnlargeKansas' Naadir Tharpe
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiNaadir Tharpe drops the game-winning shot over Phil Forte with 20 seconds left in double overtime.
"It's a huge win for conference implications,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I really thought that Oklahoma State had the best path. I'm not saying we couldn't have won it. We still have the toughest road of anybody. We're still in the game, though.

“This was huge.”

True, the Big 12 race is far from over. Five conference games remain, and the Jayhawks still have Iowa State and Baylor on the road. But having toppled the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse already, Oklahoma State had a rare and precious opportunity to effectively end Kansas’ reign of terror over the league. A reign of terror that includes four consecutive outright conference titles and a piece of the Big 12 championship eight straight seasons.

The last time the Jayhawks failed to finish first? In 2004, when Eddie Sutton’s Final Four Cowboys routed the Jayhawks in Stillwater on their way to an outright title.

On Wednesday, Oklahoma State didn’t need a rout. Just a victory. And the young and talented Cowboys came oh-so-close to stoning Goliath.

In a game that featured 16 ties, 23 lead changes and no lead bigger than five points, the night seemed primed for point guard Marcus Smart, who has championed the Cowboys into conference contention. Over a seven-game winning streak, Smart nailed a game-winning shot to beat Iowa State, then spearheaded Oklahoma State to overtime home victories over Baylor and Oklahoma. Smart also was spectacular in the Cowboys’ 85-80 win Feb. 2 in Lawrence, which he capped with a postgame backflip the Jayhawks didn’t forget.

Despite his poorest shooting night of the season, it looked as if Smart still had magic left in the tank Wednesday. With 1:12 left in regulation, he finished off a fast break by nailing a 3-pointer from the wing to tie the game at 57-all.

The next time down the floor with a chance to win the game, however, Smart ignited Oklahoma State’s possession a second too late and was forced into a poor shot, which clanged off the backboard.

Later, the Cowboys had a chance to take their first overtime lead with 26 seconds remaining. But Smart’s driving attempt bounced off the glass, then rolled around and off the rim, forcing the game to a second overtime.

“We knew what was at stake, we knew that Kansas has had a hold on [the league],” said Smart, who scored 16 points but hit just two of 14 shots. “It’s frustrating [we couldn’t come up with the plays].”

As a result, Smart fouled out with 2:24 to go in the second overtime on a charge, stripping the Cowboys of their closer.

“Marcus is a big key to this team,” said backcourt mate Markel Brown, who himself was fabulous in holding Smart’s competition for Big 12 player of the year honors, Ben McLemore, to a season-low seven points. “Once Marcus fouled out, I was like, ‘Oh shoot.’ We need Marcus out there. He brings the toughness out there, he gets stops out there. Doesn’t matter if he’s shooting bad, he can still make that big-time play for you. We needed him out there. Had we had him out there, [the game] might have had a different look.”

Instead, it was the Jayhawks who made the winning play late yet again. After Kansas failed to convert a single field goal in either overtime, backup point guard Naadir Tharpe maneuvered his way through Phil Forte and into the paint before swishing a one-handed floater to give the Jayhawks the 68-67 lead.

“We didn't really have any offense; neither team had any offense,” Self said of the overtimes. “But [Tharpe] certainly made a huge play there late. Biggest play of his life, I'm sure."

With Smart sitting on the bench, the best the Cowboys could get on their final shot was Brown’s fadeaway perimeter jumper that bounced off the front of the rim in the final seconds.

"I felt like I let my teammates down,” Smart said. “I wish I was out there to savor that moment with them, help them out and contribute in the way that I usually do.

“Unfortunately it didn't work out that way this time."

Instead, it worked out how it usually has in Big 12 land -- with the Jayhawks on top once again.

Numbers to Know: Wednesday recap

February, 14, 2013
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Player of the Night -- James Ennis, Long Beach State
Ennis had 26 points, 15 rebounds and four steals in Long Beach State’s win over Cal State Fullerton. Ennis is the first Division I player this season with at least 26 points, 15 rebounds and four steals in a game. He’s the first Big West player to do so since Fullerton’s Pape Sow, who had 26 points, 18 rebounds and four steals against Cal Poly in February 2004.

Scorer of the Night -- Elston Turner, Texas A&M
Turner scored 37 points on 13-for-20 shooting, including 7-for-10 on 3-point attempts, in Texas A&M’s win over Ole Miss. Turner didn’t fill the stat sheet in many ways other than scoring, as he had just two rebounds, one assist, one steal, no blocks, no fouls and no turnovers. Only one player has scored more points in a game this season without any fouls or turnovers. That player is also Turner, when he scored 40 against Kentucky on January 12. His 40-point performance was the most by a Division I player without a foul or turnover in more than six years.

Shooter of the Night -- Markel Brown, Oklahoma State
Brown, who is usually known for dunks like this, showed off his outside shooting skills in Oklahoma State’s win at Texas Tech. Brown scored 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting, including 7-for-8 on 3-point attempts. He also made both of his free-throw attempts. No player in Big 12 history has made more 3-pointers while only missing only one attempt than Brown. Five other Big 12 players have also shot 7-for-8 from beyond the arc: Oklahoma’s Nate Erdmann (1997), Kansas’s Kirk Hinrich (2003), Texas A&M’s Antoine Wright (2005), Baylor’s LaceDarius Dunn (2008) and Iowa State’s Jamie Vanderbeken (2011).

Stat Sheet Stuffer -- Joe Jackson, Memphis
Jackson had 21 points, 10 assists, four rebounds and three steals in Memphis’s win over UCF. Jackson is only the second Division I player to reach those plateaus in a game this season. The other was Western Carolina’s Trey Sumler, who had 25 points, 12 assists, four rebounds and four steals against Chattanooga on January 19. Jackson is the first Memphis player with a stat line like that since Antonio Burks, who had 27 points, 10 assists, four rebounds and four steals against UAB in February 2003.

Debut of the Night -- Myck Kabongo, Texas
Kabongo might have been the only player with his season debut last night, but he still deserves the award. Kabongo had 13 points, seven assists and four rebounds in the Longhorns’ double-overtime win over Iowa State. Perhaps Texas is a different team now that Kabongo has returned from his 23-game suspension. According to BPI, Iowa State is the best opponent Texas has defeated this season.

Video: Oklahoma State 85, Kansas 80

February, 2, 2013
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Markel Brown scored 28 and Marcus Smart added 25 as visiting Oklahoma State upset Kansas 85-80, ending the second-ranked Jayhawks' 18-game winning streak.

Conference Power Rankings: Big 12

December, 21, 2012
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A Big 12 team other than Kansas finally picked up a quality nonconference victory when Texas upset North Carolina in Austin on Wednesday. Don’t get too excited, though. This league still has a long way to go. Here are this week’s power rankings.

1. Kansas. Saturday’s tilt with No. 7 Ohio State in Columbus will be the first true road game for Bill Self’s squad. The Jayhawks’ three most recent victories -- against Colorado, Belmont and Richmond -- came by an average of 31 points. Jeff Withey leads the nation with 5.4 blocks per game.

2. Oklahoma State. Kudos to the Cowboys, who have won four straight since losing at Virginia Tech on Dec. 1. Travis Ford’s squad, which gets a combined 30.2 points per game from Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown, hosts Tennessee Tech on Saturday and then has eight days off before a New Year’s Eve date with Gonzaga in Stillwater.

3. Iowa State. Christmas has come early for the Cyclones, who don’t play again until Jan. 1. Guard Tyrus McGee has been playing extremely well for Fred Hoiberg’s squad. He’s averaging 13.3 points and shooting 48 percent from 3-point range. Iowa State is 9-3 with losses to Cincinnati, UNLV and Iowa.

4. Baylor. The Bears host Brigham Young on Friday. They. Have. To. Win. Seriously, a team that’s already toting home losses to College of Charleston and Northwestern can’t afford to drop another non-league game against an inferior opponent. Baylor has zero chemistry on offense.

5. Kansas State. The Wildcats’ two losses are to Michigan (in New York) and to Gonzaga (in Seattle. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Still, even against mediocre teams at home, Kansas State has struggled to score. That’s not a good thing for a team that takes on Florida on Saturday in Kansas City.

6. Texas. Myck Kabongo won’t play for the Longhorns this season, but Texas didn’t even need him during Wednesday’s 85-67 whacking of an alarmingly sloppy, uninspired North Carolina club. Texas, which is getting 15.5 points from Sheldon McClellan, could pick up some additional momentum with a victory at Michigan State on Saturday.

7. Oklahoma. Wouldn’t you know it? The minute I start complimenting the Sooners for the strides they’ve made under Lon Kruger, Oklahoma goes out and drops a game to Stephen F. Austin. That’s inexcusable, boys. The Sooners' next game, a Dec. 29 visit from Ohio University, won’t be a cakewalk.

8. West Virginia. The Mountaineers ended a two-game losing streak by squeaking past Oakland on Wednesday. Still, Bob Huggins’ squad may be the Big 12’s biggest disappointment thus far. Transfers Aaric Murray and Juwan Staten are averaging a collective 20.5 points.

9. Texas Tech. Chris Walker is going to have a tough time earning the permanent head-coaching position if his team can’t beat McNeese State at home. The Red Raiders showed some fight against Alabama three nights later but still lost 66-62. Arizona State, Saturday’s opponent, is pesky.

10. TCU. The Horned Frogs haven’t caught any breaks in Trent Johnson’s first season. Aaron Durley and Amric Fields were both lost to ACL injuries, and now Jarvis Ray is out six to eight weeks with a broken foot.

What I can't wait to see: Big 12

October, 18, 2012
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Here are five storylines I look forward to following in the Big 12 this season.

What I can’t wait to see:

How will Kansas replace Thomas Robinson?

I know the Jayhawks have the goods to make a run at their ninth consecutive Big 12 title. Jeff Withey proved his worth in last season’s run to the Final Four. He’s one of the top interior defenders in America. And he has spent a lot of time working on his mid-range game. He should be a different player this season.

Highly touted recruit Perry Ellis joins the fold. I think Elijah Johnson can carry the program. And Ben McLemore is a projected lottery pick on some boards. Losing Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson will hurt, but it’s not as though Bill Self hasn’t replaced top-notch talent in the past.

Robinson, however, was an emotional leader for the team as much as he was its top player a season ago. There were moments in which the Jayhawks appeared to be on the brink of collapse and he simply willed them to a victory. I think that’s the one question facing this team. Who’s that guy right now? Perhaps it’s Withey or Johnson. But someone clearly has to assume that role early, especially with so many young players in the mix. A failure to identify a player in that vital position could prove detrimental in Big 12 play.

What is Oklahoma State’s ceiling?

Oklahoma State should challenge Kansas and Baylor for the Big 12 title. “Should” is the key word. But the Cowboys will fulfill their potential only if they find a way to play disciplined basketball, a challenge for the program last season.

It just didn’t make sense for a program with this talent (Le'Bryan Nash, Markel Brown) to struggle the way it did last season (15-18, 7-11 Big 12). Freshman Marcus Smart has been listed as one of the top young point guards in America. If he can bring Oklahoma State’s talented contributors together and teach them to man up on defense, Travis Ford could have a special year with this program. That, however, is the biggest "if" in the Big 12.

How will Bruce Weber and Bob Huggins fare in the Big 12?

The league welcomes Kansas State’s Bruce Weber and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins to the mix this season. Both coaches found success in their former leagues (Big Ten and Big East, respectively). And I think they have the talent to make a great first impression (though Huggins coached at Kansas State, so he has been in the Big 12 before) in 2012-13.

Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez give Weber the building blocks for a successful debut. Weber scored solid recruits at Illinois, but he couldn’t meet expectations after the program’s Final Four run. The expectations at Kansas State should be more modest, which should allow Weber to coach comfortably and challenge for a spot in the top tier of the league.

Huggins might have a sleeper in West Virginia. The Mountaineers are all over the board on preseason projections. But Deniz Kilicli and a heap of impact transfers (Juwan Staten, Aaric Murray and Matt Humphrey) form a nucleus that could surprise the conference in 2012-13.

Last place goes to TCU or Texas Tech?

Both teams are hurting. Texas Tech lost Billy Gillispie during a highly publicized offseason mess. And according to players, that’s what they wanted. But even with him, Texas Tech’s chances of escaping the bottom of the league were slim with only six scholarship players returning from last season’s 8-23 squad. Trent Johnson introduces TCU to the league in what could be a very humbling debut. Johnson just doesn’t have a lot of talent on the roster. He’ll certainly take his lumps early. He already has added some pieces that will be available for the future. But for both TCU and Texas Tech, 2012-13 will be a tough season.

Can Baylor put it all together and upset Kansas?

Baylor is America’s “on paper” team. On paper, last season, the Bears looked like national championship contenders with Quincy Miller, Perry Jones and Quincy Acy. They were good. But various challenges throughout the season brought criticism to Waco. Even though they reached the Elite Eight, the Bears didn’t seem to come together until March. In 2012-13, Scott Drew has a roster that can challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title. He has one of the best backcourts in America (Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, Deuce Bello, Gary Franklin and A.J. Walton) and he’s bringing in one of the top freshmen in the country in Isaiah Austin. If he can get this group to play to its strengths, Baylor will be the Jayhawks’ toughest challenger for the Big 12 crown. The potential, once again, is very high. But seeing is believing with the Bears.
Editor's note: The art of dunking has brought excitement to the game. It also has created chaos in arenas around the nation and provided plenty of challenges for coaches, says Myron Medcalf.

The 2012-13 season is just a few months away. If you’re searching for walking highlight reels, follow these rising (literally) stars. Or, just turn on “SportsCenter” throughout the year. You’ll probably see them.

This isn't a comprehensive list, but here are some guys who can really throw down a dunk (in alphabetical order):

Deuce Bello (Baylor) -- Last season, ESPN captured Bello’s behind-the-back, 360 dunk during a shoot at Baylor. Yes, a behind-the-back, 360 dunk. He made it look easy, too. Next season he’ll play a lot more, and that extra time should translate to more highlights.

Ryan Boatright (Connecticut) -- The 6-foot guard doesn’t look the part of a high-flier, but Boatright gets up. The second-year Huskies guard is one of the most explosive guards in the country. He can beat defenders with his speed and ballhandling, and he's not afraid to climb and go to the bucket.

Markel Brown (Oklahoma State) -- Last season, Brown was ejected after earning his second technical foul in a Big 12 game. His crime? He stared at a defender after his one-handed alley-oop slam set Stillwater on fire during a matchup against Missouri.

Ramon Galloway (La Salle) -- The La Salle guard is versatile. He averaged 14.1 ppg for the Explorers and shot 44.2 percent from beyond the arc. But he unveiled another element of his game -- an arsenal of ridiculous dunks -- during an NIT matchup against Minnesota in March.

Nick Johnson (Arizona) -- The 6-3 shooting guard created an archive of highlights in high school. He added a few more to his collection last season, his first at Arizona. He’s an athletic young star with surprising bounce.

James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina) -- The Tar Heels lost a lot of talent to the NBA this offseason, but McAdoo returned and should be a star. With Tyler Zeller and John Henson in front of him, McAdoo logged 15.6 minutes per game last season. But the 6-9 spectacle showed flashes of his above-the-rim potential throughout the campaign.

Mason Plumlee (Duke) -- You know what they say about guys like Plumlee: Big men can’t jump. Well, Plumlee dispels many myths with his leaping ability and aggressiveness. The 6-11 senior can glide with the best of them. Check out his infamous “three-ball” dunk on YouTube.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's Rodney Williams
AP Photo/Kiichiro SatoMinnesota's Rodney Williams is worth watching any time he has the ball near the rim.
Marshawn Powell (Arkansas) -- Last year, Powell tore his ACL in practice. Before his injury, the Arkansas star was one of the most athletic players in the country. He’s back this season. Look for him to take to the air again.

Andre Roberson (Colorado) -- Roberson goes to the rim with bad intentions. Colorado’s 6-7 wing is always forceful when he attacks the rim. He’s not limited to dunks, either. But it’s definitely an entertaining component within his game.

Victor Rudd (South Florida) -- I was in Dayton for the First Four when Rudd rocked the rim in South Florida’s lopsided win over California in March. The 6-7 forward is a special athlete. Earlier this week, I asked Rudd the feeling he gets when he dunks. “I kind of like that noise,” he said. He’ll hear it often this season.

Rodney Williams (Minnesota) -- As a freshman, Williams was listed as a potential NBA draft pick in various mock drafts. He certainly has NBA-level athleticism. He can dunk over you. He can glide from the free throw line. He can twirl in midair. When he has the ball with room to fly, you shouldn’t blink.

Patric Young (Florida) -- Young is a 6-9 forward who always goes hard to the rim. His biggest problem last season was the limited touches he received in Florida’s guard-heavy offense. But the 247-pound big man tries to rip the rim off whenever he’s in position for the dunk.

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