STILLWATER – Oklahoma State is back in the NCAA Tournament.
Back where they belong, according to Cowboys captain Markel Brown.
“It means a lot to this school,” Brown said. “I feel like this is a basketball school and we need to get back to playing the way the Cowboys are used to playing.”
Their play this season has produced a 24-8 record, good for the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region and a first-round pairing with No. 11 Oregon in San Jose on Thursday.
While OSU's been missing from the big bracket the past two years, and much of the past decade played out as a rough patch for the program, OSU stands as a familiar face on college basketball's big stage, with 25 tournament appearances and six Final Fours, which ties for seventh all-time.
These faces, however; this roster of mostly freshmen and sophomores? Not at all familiar.
In fact, none of these Cowboys have played a single tournament second. Only Brown has even played in a postseason, appearing two seasons ago during OSU's brief NIT experience.
So, how will these Cowboys respond in managing the school's return to the spotlight? Can they navigate a run deeper into March, despite such a lack of postseason experience?
Plotting such a course, they do have one proven and valuable asset: late-game toughness.
In wins over Iowa State, Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State, they trailed late or in overtime and found ways to pull through. OSU is 3-1 in overtime games and 7-2 in games decided by two possessions or fewer, with the losses to Gonzaga and KU, each awarded No. 1 seeds this postseason.
That should project as a valuable trait.
“We've won a lot of close games,' said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “We've won games in different fashion – up-tempo, slow-down. We've won on the road. We've won at neutral sites. We've done a little bit of everything.
“We've been through a lot for a young basketball team that, hopefully, will prepare us for the challenge of this NCAA Tournament. We've seen a lot of different aspects that our team has had to attack, from early in the season to the very end of the regular season. It's been good for our team, so hopefully it'll pay off for us.”
Late-game drama has put the madness into March Madness. Games going to the wire or even the last shot, those are the images stamped on the minds of so many casual and ardent followers of the sport.
Such drama is also etched on OSU's season to this point.
So in that regard, the Cowboys are experienced.
Consider the snapshots from this season so far: Michael Cobbins' block of Baylor's A.J. Walton, leading to Brown's coast-to-coast, buzzer-beating lay-in in overtime; Marcus Smart's two offensive rebounds and put-backs off missed free throws late at KU; Smart's running flip shot in the lane with three seconds remaining to beat Iowa State; Smart stuffing Oklahoma's Steven Pledger at the 3-point line to seal an overtime win; Le'Bryan Nash slashing and gashing Kansas State.
“At the end of those games, it's not even about talent anymore,” Brown said. “It's about who wants it the most. I feel like we've got a tough group of kids out there. And at the end of the game, we've got guys who are going to scratch and claw for a win.
“That's going to be great for the NCAA Tournament. We're going to go out there and fight for wins.”