The Cowboys are pushing the reset button.
Oklahoma State used Marcus Smart’s suspension to regroup and rally in the Big 12, boosting its play down the stretch in a drive to reach the postseason.
With that dedicated push now over, completed with Sunday’s at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, OSU can now refocus back on its original prize: a run to the Final Four.
No, it won’t be easy.
It might not even be likely, with the Cowboys needing wins over Gonzaga and No. 1 seed Arizona just to get to the Sweet 16.
It’s not out of the question, either.
Consider noted ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s take as a best-case scenario: “Few teams in the country have three players like (Marcus) Smart, (Markel) Brown and (Le’Bryan) Nash – each of whom can get 20 points any night. Smart’s notoriety doesn’t allow the Cowboys to sneak up on anyone, but this could be a lower seed that makes a deep run.”
And Lunardi isn’t alone. OSU is a popular choice among analysts to fill the role of team to fear, especially as a No. 9 seed.
There was a Lunardi worst-case scenario, too, which wasn’t all that complementary. And hey, the Cowboys had their issues this season, including a seven-game losing streak that contributed to an 8-10 conference finish that makes OSU the Big 12’s first sub-.500 team ever to make the NCAA field.
Yet there are things to like about this Cowboys squad currently. And remember, they once had the look of a Final Four contender, before Michael Cobbins got hurt and the journey went sideways, only to seemingly regain direction.
“We’re playing Grade A basketball right now,” Brown said. “We’re playing like a team. We’re playing like we were early on in the season. We just need that to carry on.”
Since the seven-game losing streak, the Cowboys have produced seven strong performances, going 5-2 with the losses coming against the Big 12’s champions: Kansas (regular season) and Iowa State (tournament) – in overtime.
Smart has returned to being the team’s reliable rudder, resulting in better flow and a needed unselfishness that had been lacking on the offensive end during the slump.
“That seven-game losing streak we were on, this team was playing horrible,” Smart said. “It was like this team didn’t know who we were. We weren’t a team. But now we’re back together. Everybody’s jelling. We’re sharing the ball. And getting things done.
“We’re definitely playing better basketball than we were last year.”
That storyline is prominent inside the locker room as well.
A year ago, the Cowboys were fading into postseason, looking like a tired team that had lost its legs. They were bounced out of the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments in ragged performances.
“Last year, we didn’t play as hard,” Smart said. “Everybody could see it. We were just happy to be in it.”
This year, OSU looks like it’s gained a second wind.
And with eight days off between games, the Cowboys receive some added rest in the aftermath of their late push.
And they get an opportunity to reset.
“It can be,” Brown said. “With the break, we’ll get time to rest our bodies. It can be a little reset for us. Hopefully, it’s a reset in a positive way.”