The demons that had haunted Oklahoma State were in its past -- at least, that's what the Cowboys wanted us to believe as they entered their Big 12 matchup with No. 5 Kansas on Saturday. Of course, the real test would be how coach Travis Ford's squad performed at home against the Jayhawks, who had already clinched at least a share of the conference title for the 10th straight year.
If this was a test, then Oklahoma State passed with flying colors.
Guard Marcus Smart continued his comeback campaign by scoring 12 of his team's final 25 points and the Cowboys held off a pesky Kansas squad 72-65. The win was a testament to how much this team had turned around, and just maybe, the victory proved why Oklahoma State might just be a tournament team after all.
"We needed this win to boost our résumé," Smart told ESPN after the game, "and with this crowd out here tonight, that's what we did."
Two weeks ago, Oklahoma State was dead in the water. The Cowboys had lost seven straight games and had fallen not-so-gracefully from college basketball's elite after a 16-3 start to the season. Oklahoma State's NCAA tournament hopes were gradually slipping away, and the promise that had surrounded Smart as a Player of the Year candidate had been overshadowed by a drop in production and a forgettable sideline altercation with a fan during a game against Texas Tech. The Cowboys faced a myriad of issues, and none of those issues helped their case for a ticket to the Big Dance.
Then things turned around. Oklahoma State beat Texas Tech and TCU by a combined 44 points. During those games, Smart averaged 16.5 points. The narrative that had engulfed this team had seemingly shifted.
History would dictate that Saturday's game against Kansas wouldn't be as easy. The previous three meetings in the series had been determined by a combined eight points, and that's the type of game that unfolded in Stillwater on Saturday.
Oklahoma State and Kansas fought back and forth through an ugly first half that saw both teams shoot worse than 34 percent from the field. Kansas, however, entered the half with a slim 26-25 lead. That wasn't good news for the Cowboys; the Jayhawks boasted a 20-0 record this season when leading at intermission. Moreover, Smart hadn't converted a field goal (0-7) at half and had scored only a single free throw.
Midway through the second half, it seemed like the Cowboys were finally running out of gas. With 11:28 to play, Perry Ellis dropped in a layup with a foul to push the Jayhawks ahead 49-40 on the ensuing free throw. But Oklahoma State stormed back to within three points, 52-49, on a Le'Bryan Nash dunk at the 9:00 mark.
That's when Smart began to take over, shaking off his sorry first half to keep the Cowboys alive. A Smart 3-pointer with 3:42 to play gave Oklahoma State a 63-61 lead, and he converted two layups in the final minute, both over 7-foot center Joel Embiid, to put the game away. Smart scored 20 of his 21 points in the second half while also contributing six rebounds, five assists and five steals.
After the game, Smart said this is the kind of Oklahoma State basketball the country should expect from this program.
"OSU is back," Smart told ESPN, when asked what statement his team made against Kansas. "We had our little losing streak, we were down. But you know what? We're coming back up, we're showing America we're the Oklahoma State we were at the beginning of the season." Over the last month, the Cowboys were anything but a tournament team, but the tables have turned for this program, and the matchup with Kansas was the biggest step in proving its worth. The college basketball season is a marathon, not a sprint. Teams grow from one month to the next. For Oklahoma State, these Cowboys just happen to be peaking at the right time, and a win against a team like Kansas is just what the tournament selection committee wants to see. It's a little premature to start writing a redemption story for this Oklahoma State team, but given what it's been through this season, there won't be many narratives more compelling than this turnaround tale if it continues.