By KEVIN LONNQUIST
Big 12 Insider
You’ve often heard coaches tell the media and fans that their freshmen are really no longer freshman at this time of year. The youngsters have played about 25 games, know all the particulars of the offensive and defensive systems and been through enough game situations to know how to handle them.
That must be what’s going on at Oklahoma State. It’s been nearly a month since the youthful Cowboys (18-5) have lost a game. They now share the lead in the Big 12 at 8-3 with Kansas and Kansas State. They’re on a six-game winning streak going into Saturday’s Bedlam matchup against Oklahoma.
While they offered preseason intrigue, there was enough concern as to whether sophomore Le’Bryan Nash and freshmen Marcus Smart and Phil Forte could restore the program back to the conference’s upper echelon. In fact, there were whispers that if this year didn’t meet expectations, coach Travis Ford’s job could be on the line.
How they got here is interesting. They went to Waco on Jan. 21 and were about as flat in the second half as you could be and dropped a 64-54 decision to Baylor. Shooting was bad (35 percent for the game and 13 percent from 3-point range). Players were in foul trouble and the loss left them under .500 in the Big 12 at 2-3.
And then they didn’t look very good at the beginning in the next game against West Virginia. Oklahoma State trailed at home 24-11 before a mind-numbing 19-3 run flipped the game. The Cowboys won, 80-66, and haven’t looked back.
The Cowboys have balanced the win streak, with three on the road and three at home. Of course, the big one was the 85-80 upset at Kansas which snapped the Jayhawks’ 33-game home winning streak.
The Nash, Forte and Smart trio has delivered to complement junior guard Markel Brown. Smart has been in double figures in each of the last seven games. Nash has been a little erratic but still added enough to be a presence in the front court. Forte has been pretty steady coming off the bench.
As good as this run has been, this is also the time of the season where the high school season is winding down. Watching how Smart and Forte hold up will be the story. If they do, then the Cowboys have a chance to remain in the conference race. Following Oklahoma, they play host to Kansas Wednesday. There is a real opportunity.
All good things will end. The Cowboys just hope they can delay it.
BIG 12 WEEKEND
A look at the Big 12 Saturday schedule. All times are Central.
12:30 p.m. Saturday (Big 12 Network)
The skinny: The Cyclones are the mysterious team in this conference. They are 5-0 at home and 1-5 on the road in the league with bad losses at Texas Tech and Texas.
TCU completes a difficult road trip that started at Oklahoma Monday.
12:30 Saturday (Big 12 Network)
The skinny: The second meeting in the Bedlam series. Oklahoma won the first meeting Jan. 12 in Norman, 77-68.
The Sooners need this win to improve their NCAA status. Oklahoma State is the hottest team in the conference. The Pokes are shooting 74 percent on free throws.
3:00 p.m. Saturday (Big 12 Network)
The skinny: Currently on a four-game losing streak, the Red Raiders have lost eight of their nine conference games by nine points or more.
This may be the worst offensive team Mountaineers’ coach Bob Huggins has fielded but this group has managed to stay respectable.
6:00 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU)
The skinny: The surprising Wildcats look to maintain at least a share of the conference lead and claim a 20-win season. KSU has the best defensive rebounding team in the league at 31.8 rpg.
Baylor needs to keep pace and must get more from the front court between Isaiah Austin and Corey Jefferson. Against West Virginia, they combined for 10 point and six rebounds.
8:00 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)
The skinny: This is ESPN’s College Game Day game of the week, although people thought Texas would be better than this.
The Longhorns have point guard Myck Kabongo back and they looked like a different team against Iowa State.
KU broke a three-game losing streak on Monday and has to get better guard play from Travis Releford.
NEWS & NOTES
>With 16 wins, Oklahoma has already surpassed the 2011-12 win total. The 72-66 win over then No. 5 Kansas was the first win over a Top 5 team since beating Texas Jan. 28, 2006.
>Baylor has 137 conference wins since the beginning of the 2007-08 season. That surpasses the entire win total (135) from the previous 11 seasons.
BIG 12 BASKETBALL POWER RANKINGS
During the Big 12 conference basketball season, Rattle and Hum Sports unveils its power rankings. We also provide our postseason tournament projections.
1. Kansas – Recent three-game slide was the first since 2005.
2. Kansas State – As Rodney McGruder goes, so go the Wildcats.
3. Oklahoma State – A very impressive six-game winning streak.
4. Baylor – Took advantage of home stretch against Texas Tech and West Virginia.
5. Oklahoma – Sooners beating the teams they should.
6. Iowa State – This team is so hard to figure out.
7. West Virginia – Scoring is a problem, not to mention the ball handling.
8. Texas – Myck Kabongo’s return inspires double overtime upset of Iowa State.
9. Texas Tech – Blowout losses are becoming the norm.
10. TCU — So how did this team beat Kansas again?
Projected NCAA Tournament teams: Kansas, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor
NIT Tournament teams: Oklahoma, Iowa State