Oklahoma State may be the most underrated team in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Cowboys (21-12, 8-10), won just eight games in the highly competitive Big 12 this season, but they were co-favorites, along with Kansas, in the preseason poll of the conference coaches. Oklahoma State was ranked I in n the top 25 a good part of the season bur, like Baylor, went into a inexplicable funk in which they lost four straight games, then lost their star player, Marcus Smart, to a suspension, which resulted in three more consecutive losses.
With just a couple of weeks to go in the regular season, Oklahoma State’s record in the conference stood at 4-10, and the Cowboys were in serious jeopardy of being on the outside looking in when it came time for March Madness. With their backs to the wall, the Cowboys got serious and began playing like they were capable of again, winning four of their final five regular-season games. And were in not for a miracle three-point shot at the buzzer in regulation to send the game with Iowa State into overtime, it could easily have been five of five to close out the regular season.
Oklahoma State is seeded eighth in the West Region and will play No. 9-seeded Gonzaga (28-6) on Friday at the Viejas Arena in San Diego. The Zags, a regular in the NCAA Tournament in recent years, won the West Coast Conference Tournament, beating BYU, which also earned a spot in this year’s Big Dance.
Gonzaga features four players who average in double figures in scoring, led by forward Sam Dower (15 points per game) and junior guard Kevin Pangos (14 ppg). Pangos, however, has been battling a foot injury, which could be a factor in the Zag’s chances against a very dangerous Oklahoma State team. The Zags also get offensive balance from guard Gary Bell and center Przemek Karnowski, both good for 10 or 11 points every game.
Both teams shoot the ball very well – Gonzaga is shooting close to 50 percent as a team, while the Cowboys average around 47 percent from the floor – including the three-ball, The Cowboys have three players who ranked in the top 10 in the Big 12 this season in both made threes and three-point shooting percentage. OSU’s Phil Forte averages three three-point makes a game.
Gonzaga may have a rebounding edge on the Cowboys, who lack size on the frontline.
The Cowboys are probably the most dangerous nine seed in the tournament. Generally speaking, the Cowboys will go as far in the tournament as last season’s Big 12 Player of the Year and All-Big 12 first-teamer Marcus Smart will take them. If both Smart and senior backcourt mate Markel Brown are on their game, it will be tough for Gonzaga to defeat OSU. Junior forward Le’Bryan Nash, who averages 14 points per game, also is capable of wielding a hot hand on offense.
Oklahoma State’s biggest problem this season has been in finishing. Ten of the Cowboys’ 12 losses this season have been by two or fewer possessions or in overtime.
According to RPI, Gonzaga has an advantage over the Cowboys. The Zags rank 22nd in RPI; Oklahoma State is 45th. Gonzaga was 2-3 against teams in the top 50 this season, while the Cowboys were 4-10 against the top 50, playing in the conference believed to be the strongest in the nation.
The winner of this game will meet the winner of the second-round matchup between No. 1-seed Arizona and 16-seed Akron in round three on Sunday.
My pick: Oklahoma State 81, Gonzaga 76