The race for the presumable number two spot behind Kansas in the Big 12 got a little more interesting on Saturday. In an intriguing league opener between two ranked teams, Kansas State took care of business at home with a 73-67 win over Oklahoma State in Manhattan. It helps establishes the Wildcats as a Big 12 frontrunner, but more importantly, it leaves Travis Ford with a few more questions than he may have originally anticipated. At this point, he knows he has a dangerous squad. Watch these Cowboys for a only a few minutes, and you’ll see it’s a completely different team than a year ago. Freshman Marcus Smart has a presence to him at the point guard spot, Le’Bryan Nash has matured, and, oh, Markel Brown can still dunk. He threw down a couple of nasty party-starters in the first half on Saturday. It seems as though everybody on the floor has those kinds of hops. As impressive and athletic as Oklahoma State looks at times, however, the results haven’t been there lately. The Cowboys’ win over then-No. 6 North Carolina State in November looks more like two years ago than two months now. First, there was the discouraging loss to Virginia Tech. Then, they failed to capitalize when they had Gonzaga on the ropes at Gallagher-Iba Arena on New Year’s Eve.
And now this. When it won the Puerto Rico Tip-off, Oklahoma State looked like it could potentially grow into Kansas’ fiercest competitor at season’s end. Losing a game at Bramlage, one of the more difficult places to play in the league, doesn’t kill those chances. It’s just that Ford must now figure out how to take his team to the next level– from “better-than-last-year” to “immediate contender.” Oklahoma State’s lack of frontcourt size became evident right away in this physical battle, and it didn’t help that freshman forward Kamari Murphy found himself in early foul trouble. The Cowboys also had no answer for Kansas State star Rodney McGruder, who finished with 28 points and five rebounds. He was the best player on the floor on Saturday, and that’s no surprise. When the Wildcats needed to make a play in the final minutes, they did. That was the difference between Oklahoma State and Kansas State on this particular afternoon. Again, the loss doesn’t leave the Cowboys in a precarious position, but the excitement of that Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship has worn off. After all, NC State nearly lost to Boston College on Saturday afternoon.