STILLWATER — Travis Ford walked into OSU's Heritage Hall, fresh off the Cowboys' first victory in four weeks, and was greeted by a fan.
“Coach Ford, good to see you smile again,” the fan said.
No holes in that statement.
Smiles were in abundance Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena after a seven-game losing streak and a Marcus Smart suspension put Cowboy basketball in a state of despair and disrepair.
OSU routed Texas Tech 84-62, a verdict that didn't so much revive the season as it revived morale. This was a team and a school and a town and a fan base that needed to remember how much fun winning can be.
And a coach, too. Most definitely the coach.
Ford's job status has become a major issue in this season-gone-sour, and lost in the speculation of how OSU could find $10 million to pay off a coach with five years left on his contract, was this. Who knows if Ford even would want to keep coaching at a place that was growing so disenchanted with his product?
No one wants to captain the Titanic.
But OSU hoops 2014 hasn't sunk yet. Not after Saturday, when the Cowboys took apart a Tech team that had been playing very well.
“Doesn't mean we're back,” Ford said, referring to the status that once had the Cowboys ranked fifth nationally but had slipped to ninth in the 10-team Big 12.
“Doesn't mean everything's perfect. It means we're capable. It's fragile. We can't take anything for granted.”
But at least this OSU season has a pulse. Ford was right. The return of Smart showed that this team is capable.
The Cowboys butchered what had been a tough Tech defense. Le'Bryan Nash was a dunking machine, Phil Forte scored 20 points and Markel Brown got to catch his breath, all because Smart was back. Not the Smart of January, but the Smart of November, who makes the game easier for his teammates because of quick hands and sharp eyes.
Smart was in triple-double territory, with 16 points, 10 assists and six steals.
Play like this, and OSU has a shot at making the NCAA Tournament — an 8-10 Big 12 record might do it, but that would require going 3-1 the rest of the way. The Cowboys host Kansas and play at Iowa State, which means a strong finish will be difficult but would be amply rewarded.
“Soon as we won the game, I said, it's a new start for us,” Nash said. “New journey for us. We got five games (counting the Big 12 Tournament opener) that can help boost our resume' for the NCAA. It's set up for us.”
The Cowboys have to win at TCU on Monday night to even make the Kansas game next Saturday relevant. But at least the mood has changed. At least the negative vibe around this team and this season and this coach has been scattered for awhile.
“Positive energy, it's kind of weird,” Smart said. “We're positive when we're winning. It continues, it becomes contagious. Losing is very contagious. It just kept going.
“We see ourselves coming out with a victory, it can become contagious, we can start a streak.”
It's not too late for the Cowboys to save their season, or for Ford to save his status with the OSU fans and administration.
Smart played with a joy that had been missing even before his three-game suspension for shoving a Tech fan on Feb. 8.
And a rejuvenated Smart meant a rejuvenated Ford. After freshman Leyton Hammonds sank a 3-pointer that gave OSU a 59-42 lead midway through the second half and effectively ended Tech hopes, Ford was joy-jumping into the timeout.
When Smart came off the floor for good with 1:06 left in the game, Ford had a quick hug for his superstar. Then the superstar had a return hug for a coach who for a month has looked like he needed all the comforting someone could offer.
“I was just happy the way he played,” Ford said. “Good to see him smile. Hadn't seen that in awhile.”
Hadn't seen it out of Ford, either. A little of his burden was lifted Saturday.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.