AMES, Iowa — Travis Ford always viewed this two-game close to the regular season — at Iowa State Wednesday and Saturday's home finale against Kansas State — as pivotal.
“Even looking at it preseason,” the Cowboys' coach said.
That was before Oklahoma State would emerge from back-to-back disappointing seasons to the nation's No. 13 ranking.
Before a rousing landmark win at Kansas, a seven-game winning streak and just the program's third 12-win conference record (so far) since 1965.
Before anybody mentioned Marcus Smart for National Player of the Year or the Cowboys as a threat to advance deep in the NCAA Tournament.
So Ford was prophetic. Because for all his team has already accomplished, this stands as a big week for grabbing what's still out there, like a second-place finish in the Big 12 and a lofty perch for March Madness.
“We've got some ball left before the NCAA Tournament,” said OSU guard Brian Williams.
“We're playing for something every game now,” said Le'Bryan Nash.
The Cowboys, 12-4 in the Big 12, currently sit one game behind Kansas State and 1½ games behind Kansas in the league standings, with that head-to-head meeting with the Wildcats coming up Saturday. With help, OSU can still share the conference title with KU, but the Jayhawks own the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed in next week's Big 12 Tournament.
The Cowboys, however, carry the tiebreaker with K-State, meaning Saturday's clash could be for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. And that status comes with a comfortable path to the tournament semifinals, while anything less poses a stiffer challenge.
Of course, a win at Iowa State is also required.
And that may be the tougher task of these two games.
So that's the challenge of the week, which if it all ends right, could boost the Cowboys in the minds of the NCAA Tournament committee. Most analysts project OSU as a No. 4 or 5 seed currently. Yet a No. 3 could possibly be had, considering K-State holds that distinction with the bracketologists now.
“These are quality games, like it'll be the rest of the way,” said Cowboys center Philip Jurick. “But like coach says, ‘We've just got to go 1-0 from now on.'
“And see how far it takes us.”
It all starts in Ames, where the Cyclones have lost but once in league play, in overtime to Kansas. And where it will be Senior Night at Hilton Coliseum, with six players playing their final home game; so emotional for sure. And where one of the Big 12's best home crowds will surely be stoked and more emotional.
And then there's Hilton Magic, which came into play last season, when Scott Christopherson banked in a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to sink the Cowboys.
Up until a month ago, this would have sniffed of a sure loss, with OSU still lugging around three seasons worth of road woes.
Now, however, the Cowboys have won five straight on the Big 12 road and carry no hint of fear into enemy arenas.
“Don't fear anybody,” Williams said.
And these Cowboys can't fear the opportunity ahead.
“This week is a good week,” Ford said. “This is kind of an NCAA, Big 12 Tournament type of week for us. These are the type of teams you're going to see. For us, it's a great test to hopefully prepare us for postseason play, as well as trying to win basketball games.”
No. 13 Oklahoma State at Iowa State
* When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
* Where: Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa
* TV: ESPNU (Cox 253/HD 718; U-Verse 605/HD 1605; Dish 141; DirecTV 208)
* Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1
Three things to know
* Iowa State has won 10 of its last 14 Senior Night contests.
* The series has become defined by drama, with last-second shots and tight contests. The past four games — three of them OSU wins — have either been decided by three points or less or gone to overtime.
* The Cyclones, who lead the nation in made 3-pointers per game (9.9), have six players with 20 or more 3s.