STILLWATER — For all the storied tradition and tales associated with Gallagher-Iba Arena, history reveals one notable feature lacking in Oklahoma State's grand old gym:
Visits by ranked nonconference foes.
On rare occasions — only 12 times since 1952 and not since 1989 — have nonconference teams carrying Top 25 status ventured inside GIA. That makes No. 13 Gonzaga's visit on New Year's Eve all the more intriguing.
Not only are the Bulldogs a recognizable basketball name, they represent a telling checkpoint for the Cowboys, themselves ranked at No. 22 and seeking a significant bump into Big 12 play.
“Obviously, we know it's a big game,” said OSU freshman Phil Forte. “They're a top-15 team. Everyone knows what they do every year — an NCAA Tournament team and one of the top programs.
“We know we have them coming to our place New Year's Eve. And we know we have our work cut out for us.”
The Cowboys haven't hosted a ranked nonconference foe since Dec. 5, 1989, when No. 16 Memphis absorbed a 93-66 whipping by an unranked OSU team inside GIA. The Bulldogs will be the highest-ranked non-league opponent to visit since 1980, when the Cowboys knocked off No. 8 Louisville, 72-71, after the Cardinals had won the national title the previous season.
So clearly, this meeting is significant.
“Very exciting,” said OSU backup point guard Kirby Gardner.
One of the most accomplished programs outside basketball's power conferences, Gonzaga has made the postseason in 18 of the last 19 years, including 15 trips to the NCAA Tournament, making several deep runs. Coach Mark Few, in his 13th season at the school, has elevated the program, going 353-91 overall and making the Bulldogs a mid-major to fear.
This team returned eight lettermen and four starters from a squad that advanced to the NCAA's third round a year ago. And the maturity and talent has been evident so far, with the Bulldogs off to an 11-1 start that includes a championship at the Old Spice Classic. They've been especially rough on Big 12 teams, owning routs of West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kansas State, with Baylor due in Spokane, Wash., on Friday night.
Gonzaga's lone loss: at home to 12th-ranked Illinois, 85-74.
“Everyone knows Gonzaga has an incredible tradition,” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford, “but from what I understand, this is the best team they've probably ever had. They have every piece. They have big guys. They have guards. They have guys who can shoot it. Bench.
“Some people I've talked to said that in person, they are huge. Just a big, physical presence.”
The Bulldogs start 7-footer Kelly Olynyk at center and bring 7-1 Przemek Karnowski off the bench. Olynyk averages 14.6 points and 6.6 rebounds, while the Polish product Karnowski averages 9.3 points as one of the nation's top freshmen. Elias Harris, a 6-8 power forward, leads Gonzaga at 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds a game.
Kevin Pangos is a playmaker considered among the nation's top point guards. And the bench offers David Stockton, son of former Utah Jazz star John Stockton.
The matchup features a clash of styles, with Gonzaga's 80.8 point-per-game offense opposite OSU's grinding defense, which has held opponents to an average of 55.5 points and 35.8 percent shooting.
Officially a sellout, there is some concern that the Jan. 1 Heart of Dallas Bowl might claim some fans holding tickets to both. Yet fans have been encouraged to put their tickets to use, either in person or by putting them into the hands of those who will. A large crowd is expected, boosted by 4,000 free tickets provided by Boone Pickens.
And the Cowboys have recognized the buzz surrounding this game for weeks, especially with the Cowboys virtually untested since their only loss, an 81-71 setback at Virginia Tech on Dec. 1.
“It's great for us, to prepare for the league,” Ford said. “It's great for the fans, something to get excited about. It's great for Gallagher-Iba, to have a team that everybody respects.”