5 Things Oklahoma State Must Do to Make the 2014 NCAA Tournament
Oklahoma State Can Still Make 2014 NCAA Tournament
Frankly speaking, the Oklahoma State Cowboys shouldn't even be in this position.
Just over a month ago, they were ranked No. 9 in the country with a record of 15-2 and 3-1 in the Big 12, appearing poised to challenge perennial conference power Kansas for the league crown. They traveled to Lawrence on Jan. 18 to face the Jayhawks, but dropped a close 80-78 decision in a game that saw the Cowboys erase a 17-point halftime deficit. After bouncing back with an 81-75 home win over West Virginia a week later, they've gone on a seven-game downward spiral, journeying from ninth in the country to ninth place in their own conference. The skid is the program's longest since the 1972-73 season.
Three of the losses took place during the suspension of preseason First Team All-American Marcus Smart, reprimanded three games for shoving Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr in the waning seconds of a 65-61 loss in Lubbock. Orr allegedly directed a racial slur towards Smart, sparking perhaps the biggest hot button conversation in college basketball this season. As fate would have it, Smart returns to the starting lineup this Saturday in a rematch with Tech. The Cowboys enter the game with a record of 16-10, 4-9.
Despite many struggles before his suspension, his presence and leadership were clearly missing during that stretch. The initial shock of him not being in the lineup resulted in a 87-68 blowout loss at Texas. Valiant efforts against cross-state rival Oklahoma (77-74) and at Baylor (70-64 OT) also ended in losses but gave head coach Travis Ford an opportunity to open up playing time for his inexperienced bench.
Though the odds appear to be insurmountable, all is not lost for the Cowboys. The Big 12 is ranked No. 1 overall in both conference RPI and strength of schedule, as only one of the 10 teams in the league currently has a losing record. Oklahoma State has a very respectable RPI of 45 and strength of schedule of 12, two factors that bode very well in their favor. However, they have plenty of work to do.
5. Trust Travis Ford
After a very hot start, Oklahoma State's slide is a bit puzzling. The spark has been missing for over a month, but the talent is there. The problem for the Cowboys is depth. Though moral victories have no effect on the won-loss column, the experience the younger players gained from actual in-game activity will come in handy down the stretch. With the conference tournament and subsequent NCAA Tournament looming, Ford won't have to maneuver so delicately when it comes time to make substitution changes. The confidence he showed in his players will prove to be a reversal of fortune as they have begun to trust him more.
4. Play A Faster Pace
Even though the Cowboys aren't deep they can score points, averaging 81.2 PPG (18th in the nation). In games they've scored 80 or more points, their record is 10-1 with the only loss a 98-97 triple overtime thriller against Iowa State.
3. Run the Regular Season Table
The Cowboys have five games remaining on the regular season slate with three of them being at home. The first two are against Texas Tech and TCU, the worst teams in the conference. Without those wins, an invite to the dance might be highly unlikely. The final three games are against virtual NCAA tourney locks Kansas, Kansas State and at Iowa State. Wins against that trio would definitely give them serious consideration and much-needed momentum heading into the conference tournament.
2. Win the Big 12 Tournament
It would be in the Cowboys' best interest to not depend on receiving one of the 37 available at-large bids. Solid RPI and SOS ratings aside, they need wins. Even if they finish the regular season strong, they can't afford a poor showing in the conference tournament. They last won the conference tournament title in 2005.
1. Play "Smart"
Everything ends and begins with the star sophomore point guard. Watching his team lose three important games is something he will take personally. At the same time, it made him humble. Often times this year, Smart became uncharacteristically frustrated and played out of control. However, he's the unquestionable leader of this team. He had an opportunity to leave school after his freshman year but returned to play with junior LeBryan Nash and senior Markel Nash, both of whom also passed on the NBA to compete for a chance at a Final Four berth.