February 26, 2008

Show-Me Momentum

Remember when media members and fans thought Oklahoma State would only win four games in Big 12 play?

After Saturday's upset of Kansas, winning just four games over the course of the league schedule is out the window. While being happy about a 5-7 Big 12 record isn't the norm in Stillwater, the past couple of seasons have been far from normal, so you have to take what you can get.

And what fans in Orange Country are getting is improved play and more consistency, as the Cowboys have seemingly come together and decided to all push in the same direction. And with the way the conference standings look today, OSU (14-12) could make a run up it over the course of the next few games. The Cowboys are in a three-way tie for fifth place, along with Missouri and Nebraska. Above that, four teams are tied for fourth place (Baylor, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Texas Tech) with 6-6 league marks.

What's all that mean? It means that a win in each of their three games could propel the Pokes up the standings to the point that OSU could be in position to battle for the coveted fourth spot, which would mean a bye in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City in mid-March.

After the way this season has gone for the Cowboys, the fact that this is even a realistic scenario for Sean Sutton's crew is nothing short of astounding. After all, if I told you in the middle of that six-game losing streak that OSU would reel off wins over Baylor, Texas A&M and Kansas in a row you'd likely remind me this isn't 2004. But that reality has pulled a giant reversal of fortune and now talking about the post-season beyond the first day in KC isn't as foolish as it once was.

But to keep that upbeat trend going, the Cowboys must keep winning. And that means figuring out a way to win only their second road game in the past 20 tries against the Missouri Tigers and their Richardson-style "40 Minutes of Hell" defense. The game is set for an 8 p.m. start and will be televised nationally on ESPNU.

Record-wise, Mizzou (15-12, 5-7) has had a season very similar to OSU's, the only major difference being the Tigers' longest losing streak this season was a three-game stretch in mid-January when they lost to Iowa State, Kansas and Texas Tech. Since that time, they've basically followed a win with a loss for the past month.

The Tigers appear to be a good match-up size-wise for the Cowboys, as none of their starters are taller than 6-8. DeMarre Carroll is one of those guys and is averaging 12.6 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game. Guard Keon Lawrence is next in scoring, averaging 10.9 ppg.

Mizzou's coach, Mike Anderson, is in his second season in Columbia. He's a disciple of former Arkansas head coach Nolan Richardson, which means he runs the oppressive 40 Minutes of Hell defense. But the unit can be scored on, as the Tigers allow an average of 71 ppg.

The biggest advantage Mizzou has in this game is its history against OSU at home. Over the course of the past decade, the Cowboys have won only once - an 84-72 margin with the eventual Elite Eight team of Desmond Mason and Doug Gottlieb in 2000. Other than that, there hasn't been much recent success there. Heck, even the 2004 Final Four team lost in two overtimes up there, 93-92. The most sobering stat is this one, though. In the entire history of the series with the Tigers (dating back to 1926), OSU is 6-43 in Columbia. And three of those wins were posted in the 1960s.

Even so, the Cowboys have been playing better recently. The Phoenix-like ascent of Byron Eaton has been nothing short of impressive and the team seems to really be coming together. And a win over Mizzou tonight would knock off a team directly in front of the Pokes in the standings. Win tonight and Saturday against Nebraska in Stillwater and that would be two straight wins over teams directly ahead of OSU in the standings. Then there's another team directly ahead of the Cowboys, OU, next Wednesday. But now we're getting too far ahead of things.

The point is this: Yes, this season has been mostly a dismal failure. But the last couple of weeks have been infinitely better than the rest of the season and the current trend appears to be very positive. If OSU were to win tonight, it would just be another sign of a very positive turnaround as the season heads toward its end.

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