KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The game was close for, oh, about four minutes. Not 40. Four.
OSU basketball standards have fallen far. But not that far.
Not far enough that the Cowboys can come to the Big 12 Tournament, get embarrassed and everyone in orange says, oh well, at least spring football starts next week.
Missouri routed OSU 88-70 Thursday in the Big 12 quarterfinals, bringing to a merciful end the Cowboys' first losing season in 24 years.
OSU never has demanded Final Fours, even when Eddie Sutton was good for one a decade. Never demanded Big 12 titles. Don't even demand NCAA Tournaments anymore.
But Cowboy Country will demand more than this. Will demand that OSU basketball at least be competitive on winter nights. Will demand that a program that once swung a big stick in Kansas City not get run out of the Sprint Center before the first TV timeout.
Yes, the schedule was brutal and the injuries were worse. But the schedule was manageable last season and the injuries light, and State still went 6-10 in the league.
Two dud seasons in a row is about the limit at OSU.
Travis Ford knows it. And he says no worries. Optimism reigns for 2012-13.
“We've got some young guys who experienced a lot, performed at high levels at certain times,” Ford said. “The last couple of months have gotten people excited.”
Maybe inside the program. Outside the program, it's more wait-and-see. With homage to the victor Thursday night, it's a show-me attitude.
“Hopefully the adversity can help us become a top-10 team next year,” said freshman Le'Bryan Nash, who missed the final five games with a broken hand. “We're just building. Next year will be when we get back on top the basketball world.”
The adversity made for a kooky season. OSU's young talent got the chance to shine initially because of defections. The Cowboys were hard to watch in December, but by season's end were entertaining – even in the rout Thursday night, Brian Williams and Markel Brown were making acrobatic plays, and Keiton Page's shooting was as deadly as ever.
But when injuries arrived, the depth was shot because of the defections. Vicious circle.
“If our schedule had been right and we had stayed healthy, it would have been different,” Ford said. “That's how I look at it.
“Top-five schedule in the country, with the youngest team in the country. Doesn't take a genius to figure that out.”
Maybe so. Then comes another game like this Big 12 quarterfinal. Mizzou scored 19 points on nine possessions to take a 21-6 lead 61/2 minutes into the game. The lead reached 21 (30-9) before 11 minutes had been played. It was 47-18 before halftime and was as close as 25 (49-24) only because Williams and Brown sank 3-pointers on OSU's final possessions.
Way too many games like this to get too fired up about the future. Lose a bunch of close games and you say, hey, a play or two here or there. But OSU actually went 6-4 in close games. The Cowboys lost eight games by at least 15 points.
The only good that came of this trip to KC was the model for how Ford wants to play. Missouri, thought to be a solid matchup for the Cowboys because MU held no size advantage, played frenetic, uptempo basketball with exquisite execution.
“The team we played tonight is who we need to be like,” Ford said. “Hopefully, we'll stick with that. I like that.”
The Cowboys by season's end were a decent offensive team, befitting a team playing mostly guards. But their defense was awful.
You want to get to Missouri's level, you've got to play Missouri-style defense. Mizzou hounded the Cowboys in the early going; OSU made just four of its first 19 shots.
The Pressey brothers, Phil and Matt, velcroed themselves to Page and Brown. Dad Paul Pressey, the former Tulsa U. defensive demon, would be proud.
The returning Cowboys are athletic enough to play like that. So just like everything else that needs improvement, it comes down to commitment and determination.
“It's going to take hard work,” Nash said. “It's going to start in the summer.”
Starting in the summer is great. Finishing in the Big 12 Tournament is not. The next Cowboy season needs to go beyond Kansas City.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.