NORMAN — Michael Cobbins hobbled alone up the tunnel exiting Lloyd Noble Center on Monday night, a crutch under each arm, bracing his climb up the incline toward the team bus waiting outside.
And after Oklahoma State's 88-76 Bedlam loss, there was a sense that the Cowboys' season — without the injured Cobbins — is beginning to resemble an incline.
“Mike's not coming back,” OSU guard Markel Brown said somewhat defiantly.
The Cowboys know it.
Have always known it.
“We knew that already,” said OSU coach Travis Ford, “but that's part of it.”
But did they know they'd miss him so much? And for so long?
Since the starting post man went down just before Big 12 play, the Cowboys have found themselves in repeated uphill battles, winning some, yet sitting at 4-3 now in the conference, hardly the start of a league cofavorite, the status applied to this squad in the preseason.
Of OSU's four wins, only TCU came comfortably. Otherwise, the Cowboys have been forced to grind, even against West Virginia — twice.
And foul trouble has been a recurring theme, with players sliding into unfamiliar roles to help offset the void of Cobbins, who impacted games with his defense and athleticism around the rim.
Against OU, Marcus Smart, again, found himself in early foul woes, limited to just six minutes in the first half. Le'Bryan Nash, who started off defending Sooner big man Ryan Spangler, played but eight first-half minutes and 17 overall before fouling out.
Kamari Murphy, Cobbins' replacement, fouled out with four points and nine rebounds. Even little Stevie Clark fouled out, needing just 11 minutes to accumulate his five personals.
“We've just got to go out there and play hard,” Brown said. “Guys are playing out of position. Kamari is playing the five, Le'Bryan is playing the four. We've just got to go out there and give it all we've got. We're all we've got on this team.
“Mike is down. And we've got to move on from that. We've got to move on from that and get some wins.”
And get some stops. And some rebounds. And some garbage points inside.
All the things that Cobbins aided.
And the Cowboys must quit fouling so much.
The Sooners attempted 42 free throws and outscored OSU 30-15 at the foul line.
“I don't want to make excuses, but it's a major issue,” Ford said. “We can't keep getting in foul trouble. We know that. It's tough to go to our bench, especially in this game, the way they play.
“Our room for error is very small, especially in this game.”
The Sooners play fast, not a style for 7-foot reserve Marek Soucek, who did not play.
Junior college big man Gary Gaskins remains locked on the bench. He's battled some knee issues, as well as adjusting to the speed of the game at this level.
Has Ford given up on the two?
“No, it's just the nature of the game, the way the game's being played,” Ford said, again referencing the fast tempo.
Ford keeps trying to get freshman Leyton Hammonds going, but little good has happened for the rookie, whose confidence appears shaken.
So Ford's options are few.
Phil Forte's role continues to expand and he's responding. He made six 3-pointers in a 20-point performance off the bench Monday night. And Clark seems in line for more play.
Not trusting the big guys off the bench, Ford went to walk-on Christien Sager for a season-high 18 minutes against the Sooners.
As Brown said, Cobbins isn't coming back.
So it's up to the Cowboys to fix their woes.
“We have a lot of guys in that locker room who can better than they did,” Ford said. “Our team just needs to play better. We're not playing as well as we're capable of playing right now. Not just in this game.”