The Cowboys and Sooners had quick exits from the NCAA Tournament last week. But college basketball in Oklahoma has a pulse. For awhile this season, its blood was pumping quite nicely.
In the first nine days of February, OSU won at Kansas for the first time since the 1980s and OU beat Kansas for the first time since 2005.
The Cowboys made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, the Sooners for the first time since 2009. The rowdy returned to Gallagher-Iba Arena, and interest was way up in Norman.
“There's some excitement around the program,” OSU coach Travis Ford said.
But will it last? Can OU and OSU build on the momentum of this season? Can the Cowboys pack Gallagher-Iba like the glory days of Big Country and John Lucas? Can the Sooners make Lloyd Noble Center rock like it did for Wayman Tisdale and Eduardo Najera?
The Cowboys likely will lose star freshman Marcus Smart to the NBA Draft, and the Sooners lose star senior Romero Osby.
“While we have made some noticeable progress in rekindling fan interest and attendance, we know we still have a great deal of work to do,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “In fact, today's world will always require an aggressive effort to consistently engage fans in our program.”
The marketplace is much different than it was 10 years ago. The Sooners were a year removed from making the Final Four and the Cowboys were a year away from doing the same. It took the likes of Carmelo Anthony to take out both Bedlam rivals in the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
Since then, both schools have undergone two coaching changes and scandal — NCAA sanctions against OU under both Kelvin Sampson and Jeff Capel; the Eddie Sutton drunken driving crash and Sean Sutton drug charges.
In 2008, the Thunder arrived and the economy dipped. The Thunder's soaring, statewide popularity — sellouts every home game; television ratings that rival OU football — means college basketball is fighting for its life in a crowded marketplace.
To both schools' credit, they have embraced some of the marketing advances brought by the Thunder. Both schools have made vast improvements in their game presentations for fans. OU's video screen is excellent. OSU's is lacking.
“Success certainly plays an enormous role in the interest level,” Castiglione said, “but it is also a result or outcome of the culture of doing things right.”
Both Lon Kruger and Ford have reached out to their fan bases, particularly the students. Kruger routinely hosts groups from the community for OU's practice. Ford more than once has bought pizza for students waiting in line for choice seats at Gallagher-Iba.
Castiglione said Kruger “has and continues to immerse himself in numerous programs to reach out to people and build interest. He deserves a lot credit for doing the little things which are a difference.”
Little things help. But winning is the big thing. The Cowboys and Sooners won this season, at least compared to recent seasons, if not to the standards of a decade ago.
Said OSU forward Michael Cobbins, “If our fans are willing to stay behind us, we'll continue to show what we can do.”