First-year Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood has righted the ship, and his Cowboys have positioned themselves for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Oklahoma State lost its first six conference games but has rallied to win six of its past seven to get on the national radar. The Cowboys score 85.8 points per game, 10th nationally, but their greatest leap has been on defense. The Cowboys allowed 84 points per game in the six losses to start the conference slate and 70 in the seven league games since.
''We've made some subtle changes defensively,'' Underwood said. ''Those have helped. We've been a good offensive team throughout, so we've been able to tweak some things there and continue to be efficient at that end of the court.''
The Cowboys (17-9, 6-7 Big 12) will try to keep the momentum going Saturday against rival Oklahoma (9-16, 3-10). Oklahoma State escaped the first time they played after Phil Forte's 3-pointer with 11 seconds left was the difference in a 68-66 victory in Norman on Jan. 30. The Cowboys knocked off TCU on Wednesday for their fourth consecutive conference road win to keep their momentum going.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said he is impressed with what Underwood has accomplished since the last meeting.
''They were playing well then, and they're playing better now,'' he said. ''Brad's done a terrific job. They're playing with great confidence. They've got a good roll going. They've shot the ball well, they've attacked. Guys are making good plays.''
Many of Oklahoma State's early conference losses were close calls. The Cowboys lost by three to Texas, four to Baylor, seven to Kansas and eight to Kansas State during the skid.
''Even in those six losses, we could have been 4-2 pretty easily,'' Underwood said.
Underwood said getting the team to this point was a challenge, and he took responsibility for the rough start.
''Part of it was up to me,'' he said. ''When we got into league play, I had to figure a few things out, too, in terms of what was working, and what was not, and what we could do.''
Oklahoma is not a typical last-place team. The Sooners lost leading scorer Jordan Woodard to a career-ending ACL injury last Saturday, but they bounced back to beat Texas on Tuesday in their first game without him . Woodard said before the Texas game that he thought good things were ahead for the Sooners.
''The future of this team is bright,'' Woodard said. ''It can only go up from here. The guys are young. Everybody's going to be coming back next year, and I expect a lot. I expect a lot of good things coming from them.''
Kruger said the team is showing signs of a possible breakthrough.
''This group's gotten better,'' Kruger said. ''They really have, and it's fun to watch them grow and it's disappointing to not win more games for them, as well as everyone. They continue to give great effort and work hard. That's a given. Now we've just got to work on making winning plays late and get better results late in the ball game. That's the area we need to work on most, and this group can do that.''