March 22, 2009

Gunning for No. 1: OSU faces Pitt

Oklahoma State re-entered the NCAA Tournament in a big way on Friday with a win over Tennessee.

But the Cowboys couldn't celebrate their big win over the Volunteers too much, because it wasn't long until they knew who their next opponent would be: the Pittsburgh Panthers.

So much for enjoying that win, huh?

No slight to the Vols, but the Panthers are a few steps up on the competition scale. The No. 1 seed in the East, the Panthers are a tough second round matchup for the Pokes. Do they have a couple of more moves in them to dance around Pitt and make it back to the Sweet 16? We'll all find out in a few hours. The game is set for a 1:50 p.m. Central Time tipoff inside the UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio.

For eighth-seeded OSU (23-11), the task is a tall one: take down a top seed that is 29-4 on the season and do so in what appears to be an unfavorable matchup. Even so, there's always hope when you're talking about the NCAA Tournament. Such was almost the case for Pitt's first-round opponent, Eastern Tennessee State. The Buccaneers frustrated the Panthers much of the game, forcing 18 turnovers with a pressing defense that contained Pitt's offense most of the way. It wasn't until later in the second half that the Panthers were able to pull away. At halftime, Pitt held onto a slim 26-23 advantage.

The potential nightmare for Pitt continued in the second half and halfway through the second block the Panthers were only up two points. From there, Pitt managed to hold a five or six point lead the rest of the way, but ETSU never quite went away on them.

The end result was a 72-62 win. While it was a 10-point win, the game was much closer than that. So what does that mean for the Cowboys? Will Pitt stagger around after such a close contest or will they come out strong and shut down the Pokes early?

OSU is in a nice position in this one. Pitt is getting a lot of national title talk and the Cowboys face no pressure or expectations to win. All of the pressure is on the Panthers to win and advance. That's not to say the Panthers will take the Cowboys lightly. The win over the Vols showed the Cowboys have the ability to force an opponent out of its game and frustrate them. While the Pokes and Vols traded shots all day, OSU found a way to take the lead when it mattered, thanks to a great Byron Eaton hoop and foul situation. His late-game slash to the basket was the difference in a 77-75 victory for the Cowboys.

And that game was won with seemingly everyone on the team in foul trouble. While they were able to escape foulout hell, will they this time? Pitt should be an even bigger problem for the Cowboys and just how do they go about stopping DeJuan Blair? Both could be legitimate issues for OSU.

On the other side, if the Pokes can come out and shoot well anything can happen. It will be up to Eaton to drive inside and create scoring chances - either by earning a foul, hitting a layup or kicking it outside with a drawn-in defense - if the Cowboys are to advance to the Sweet 16. He's taken over games of late for OSU and if he can do it again this afternoon then the Pokes could find a way to steal one from the Panthers.

No matter what happens, however, the Cowboys have already posted a solid season because of their performance the last few weeks. A win today would be a huge bonus and much more than anyone expected. But even a loss won't rub off the luster of a season of renaissance in Stillwater.

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