STILLWATER — Oklahoma State passed another checkpoint at the Big 12 Tournament, the last given element in this 2012-13 schedule.
Now comes the unknown.
A welcome unknown: a date and place for the Cowboys' highly anticipated return to March Madness. That news comes Sunday, with the release of the NCAA Tournament bracket.
Most projections peg the No. 14-ranked Cowboys as a No. 4 or 5 seed, meaning at least one round as a favorite this postseason, followed by a tossup game for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16.
Already, it's been a welcome season for OSU, with a jump to 24 wins — the program's most since 2004-05 — and 13 regular season conference victories for just the third time in school history.
The Cowboys finished third in the Big 12, one game behind co-champions Kansas and Kansas State. They produced the conference Player of the Year and the Tisdale Award winner in freshman Marcus Smart. And it's been a fun ride for the Cowboys and their fans, with a few lows — including Friday night's dismissal from the Big 12 Tournament — and a fair share of highs.
The lows are easily recognized, too. The loss of Jéan-Paul Olukemi to a season-ending knee injury; the loss at Virginia Tech, a team that tumbled to a 13-19 finish and an RPI of 176; a disinterested Bedlam loss in Norman; a 2-3 start to conference play that extended their trend of league road struggle to 1-21 since 2009; and Friday night's sluggish 68-57 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 Tournament.
“This loss is behind us,” Smart said Friday night. “We lost; there's nothing you can do about it, you can't change the past.
“Whatever seed we get, we're going to take it and run with it.”
Where will the ride take them as they venture further into March? The good news for now is that there is more to March, following two seasons on the outside of this preferred Madness.
So as the Cowboys transition forward, let's take one last look back at the positive defining moments in this journey, which remains incomplete:
Best impact: Marcus Smart. We'd heard the advance hype on Smart, and it was heavy. And yet, he produced on every bit of it — and more — totally transforming a team without an identity into a tough, clutch, never-relenting squad. The Cowboys are now formed in his image, which is ultimately described with one word: winner.
Best firestarter: Markel Brown added a major layer to his game with an improved perimeter shot. The Cowboys' leading scorer used it to extend OSU's offense and to ignite big wins, none bigger than at Kansas, where Brown drilled five first-half 3s and finished with seven. He's shooting 41.7 percent from the arc, fifth-best in the Big 12.
Best development: Le'Bryan Nash had been saddled with high expectations since the moment he stepped on campus as a freshman a year ago. And it often looked as if it weighed him down. With the emergence of Smart and Brown, Nash has settled into a less demanding role that appears more comfortable. And to his credit, he's altered his game, giving up perimeter shots to thrive as a hard-to-handle slasher and scorer.
Best replacement: The Cowboys said goodbye to favorite son and sharpshooter Keiton Page. And said hello to Phil Forte, who came to OSU in part because of Page. The team's sixth man, Forte has surprisingly played starter minutes as true freshman. And while his shot has betrayed him at times on the road, he's averaging 10.4 points per game and leads the team with 63 made 3-pointers, several that paved the way to victories.
Best under-the-radar Impact: At the end of last season, there were hints that Michael Cobbins was coming on. Then an early season injury stunted his development. Healthy again, Cobbins has bolstered OSU's frontcourt as a defensive presence and a timely scorer. His strong return has also prompted Ford's increasing reliance on a smaller, more versatile lineup.
Best win: Kansas had won 33 straight and 102 of its last 103 games inside Allen Fieldhouse, when the Cowboys stunned the Jayhawks 85-80 in Lawrence. For OSU, it was a much-needed road breakthrough and a victory that flipped the season's momentum and galvanized the team's confidence.
Best early indicator: The Cowboys started strong, yet were still searching for early validation when they ran into then-No. 6 North Carolina State in the title game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. OSU stamped itself as a team to watch, routing the Wolfpack 76-56 and setting a tone for what was to come.
Best overlooked win: OSU needed overtime to get past Akron in the first round in Puerto Rico, allowing them to advance and eventually earn that clash with NC State. The Zips are now 24-6 and won 19 straight at one point, although their season could stall with point guard Alex Abreu suspended following drug charges.
Best signature moment: In overtime against Baylor at home, the Bears had a shot to win it, except Cobbins swatted A.J. Walton's running shot, allowing Brown to grab the rebound and sprint the length of the court for a game-winning layup with just two-tenths of a second remaining.
Best crossover move: Basketball and gymnastics aren't often linked, yet following OSU's rousing win at Kansas, Smart punctuated the afternoon with a fundamentally perfect round-off back flip on the floor's Jayhawk.
Best comeback: The rowdy returned to Gallagher-Iba Arena, with students and fans embracing a likable team that plays hard and has fun. And, of course, wins. Late-season sellouts signaled that college basketball is alive and well in Stillwater, even if it took a bit of a goosing to get some folks on board.