Oklahoma State's season has gone from rebuilding to contending
It was exactly four months ago Oklahoma State arrived at the Big 12 Conference's annual preseason media day and was greeted with the grim news. The Cowboys scanned the preseason conference poll and found themselves in eighth place, two spots removed from the basement of the league.
Last season was a 21-13 campaign that resulted in a trip to the NCAA tournament, the program's first back-to-back appearances since 2010. This was a team that lost the main piece to its operation, All-American guard Marcus Smart, to the NBA.
This season was supposed to be a step back.
One problem: No one told Oklahoma State. And if someone did, they obviously don't care.
All of a sudden, the Cowboys have six games left in the regular season and are thinking about another NCAA trip, not settling for the NIT or worse. The last 48 hours saw head coach Travis Ford's team beat previously No. 8 Kansas at home, before a quick turnaround to then beat No. 16 Baylor on the road.
With one month to go before the conference tournament, No. 21 Oklahoma State is now 17-7 and 7-5 in the league.
Beating Baylor in Waco was just the latest chip in the Cowboys pile they're hoping to cash in come Selection Sunday. Check out its last five games: four wins (all over ranked teams), two of them on the road. The only loss? That came to a ranked Oklahoma team, at home, by eight points.
Suddenly, this is a team that is playing its way deeper into the NCAA Tournament "lock" position.
When Oklahoma State began conference play on January 3, it was 10-2. Decent enough record, but lacking any real substance. Sure, there was a nice RPI win over Tulsa, but a lot of the other Cowboy non-conference marquee opponents have fizzled out. Oregon State has been mediocre; Memphis has struggled; while Oklahoma State lost to both South Carolina and Maryland.
But even though the 3-4 start look like more struggles were on the way, it was a misnomer: Oklahoma State was playing better than its record indicated.
That loss at Iowa State on Jan. 6? It came by two points. The first loss at Kansas? By 10, in a game the Cowboys trailed by six with under 90 seconds to play. The only ugly result was the 17-point drubbing at Oklahoma on Jan. 17.
The Big 12 has been a nightly slugfest for the top eight teams. (Think about it: Texas was ranked No. 25 last week and is currently in eighth-place and four games back.) Kansas has owned the conference for the last decade and appears headed in that direction this season, but has lacked a true contender.
Iowa State looked like the natural choice, winning the first meeting between the two teams this season, but was run out of the gym last week, losing by 13. Oklahoma? Maybe, but we won't know until the final game of the regular season when the Sooners host the Jayhawks. West Virginia? It has some soul-searching to do after back-to-back double-digit losses last week.
So why not Oklahoma State?
Of its six remaining games, the Cowboys have three against the bottom two teams (Texas Tech and TCU, a combined 3-18 in the league), two against West Virginia and a home game against Iowa State. If nothing else, it's a very favorable slate to have in the stretch run of the season.
We've learned to take everything in the Big 12 with a grain of salt this season. One week, a team is hot. The next, it's scrambling. But Oklahoma State wasn't even supposed to be here this year. It was supposed to be fighting around at the bottom of the league standings with the lesser teams.
Instead, it's knocking the top-tier teams off on a nightly basis, making a case for something bigger.
So much for that preseason poll, huh?