Coming into the season, the recipe for Travis Ford to get Oklahoma State back to the NCAA Tournament was tough, but doable: Coax solid performances from the core of Le’Bryan Nash, Phil Forte and Michael Cobbins; ask transfer Anthony Hickey to pick up some of the slack from Marcus Smart’s departure and hope for good years from his capable but unproven role players. While Smart, Markel Brown and two other players left last year’s disappointing team, the remaining core has allowed for a somewhat smooth transition. Still, the Cowboys’ prospects in a loaded Big 12 this season were considered modest at best. Conference coaches certainly didn’t make much of their chances, voting them eighth in the preseason poll. Now, a few months later and with only six games remaining in the regular season, Oklahoma State is nearing lock status for an unlikely NCAA Tournament bid bid thanks to a recent stretch of high-quality basketball.
Since suffering its worst loss of the season at Kansas State on January 24, Ford’s team has reeled off three straight wins against ranked teams and four of five overall, highlighted by last weekend’s comeback triumph over first-place Kansas and punctuated by a Monday night sweep of a very good Baylor team. The win over the Bears was especially noteworthy as it marked the Cowboys’ first sweep of Baylor since 2006, back when Baylor was barred from playing non-league games in the fallout from the Dave Bliss-Patrick Dennehy scandal. The Cowboys’ recently excellent play couldn’t have come at a better time. They had a successful if not overly impressive non-conference season with neutral court wins against Oregon State and Tulsa accompanied by a nice road win at Memphis, but they lost their two toughest tests before the new year — dropping a game at South Carolina and another to a resurgent Maryland team. The team appeared to have the potential to outperform the meager preseason expectations, but it was unclear whether they would pick up enough wins to make the necessary push for the Dance. Now that they’ve played seven games against the conference’s best teams, though, most of the grunt work is behind them.