Three weeks ago, the result of the second round of the Bedlam series seemed like a foregone conclusion.
No. 4 Oklahoma was rolling atop the Big 12 Conference and had lost only one game all season, while Oklahoma State seemed headed for oblivion after a 25-point loss to Texas.
But when the teams meet on Saturday in the regular-season finale for both, it’s Oklahoma State (20-9, 9-6) riding a conference-best six-game winning streak, while the Sooners (26-4, 12-3) have lost three of their last four.
The Cowboys have propelled themselves into the NCAA tournament conversation, while Oklahoma clings to the hope of a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA field.
“They’re the hottest team in the conference,” Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said of the Cowboys. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
After the loss to Texas on Feb. 10, Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford shook up his program, closing practices to the media and inserting freshman Keiton Page into the Cowboys’ starting lineup, replacing Obi Muonelo. Ford also changed his rotation, with reserve Nick Sidorakis seeing more playing time.
Capel also pointed to the improved play of forward Marshall Moses as a key to Oklahoma State’s turnaround.
While Ford is certainly confident in his team, he understands it will be a challenge for the Cowboys to win at the Lloyd Noble Center for the first time since 2004 on the Sooners’ Senior Night, especially considering that Oklahoma beat the Cowboys 89-81 in Stillwater on Jan. 26 in the first meeting.
“We know it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere,” Ford said. “We understand that. They’re one of the best teams in the country. I said that after we played them the first time and before we played them the first time.
“They’re a team that’s going to compete to win the national championship.”
Oklahoma’s slide started with a 73-68 loss on Feb. 21 at Texas, during which star center Blake Griffin suffered a concussion. Griffin sat out two days later as the Sooners lost 87-78 to current No. 9 Kansas at home. He returned as the Sooners won 78-63 at Texas Tech, but Oklahoma fell again on Wednesday, losing 73-64 at No. 15 Missouri.
Capel said that despite the outside perception that the Sooners are falling apart, he’s comfortable with the state of his team.
“We have a team full of guys who care,” Capel said. “…Did we not play well (at Missouri)? No, we didn’t, but it wasn’t because we didn’t care. There were hurting guys in the locker room afterward. Hopefully those guys don’t listen to any of these idiots that are saying or writing stuff, because we know what’s going on with our basketball team.
“How are we? We’re OK. Obviously, we don’t like losing, and we had some interruption within our season. … This isn’t panic time for us. It’s time for us to try and get better.”
Oklahoma and Missouri are tied for second in the Big 12, one game behind Kansas. If the Sooners win and the Jayhawks lose at home to Texas on Saturday, Oklahoma still could receive a share of the Big 12 title. The Sooners won’t be the top seed in next week’s conference tournament in Oklahoma City, as they would lose tiebreakers to both Kansas and Missouri, but they will be seeded no lower than third.
Oklahoma State’s tournament seeding also remains in question. A win over Oklahoma, combined with a Kansas win over Texas, would propel the Cowboys to a fourth-place Big 12 finish, a coveted spot since the top four teams receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament. The Cowboys could fall as far as seventh with a loss.
Having already guaranteed a winning conference record, most prognosticators think the Cowboys are safely in the NCAA field of 65 teams. Ford isn’t so sure.
“History says that, but we still have work to do,” he said. “We can’t sit back and relax and believe things will happen. There’s no question we’ve got to win the next game.”
Meanwhile, if Oklahoma is to receive the No. 1 NCAA tournament seed that seemed so probable two weeks ago, the Sooners probably need to beat Oklahoma State, then win the Big 12 tournament.
“We’re working for a No. 1 seed right now,” senior forward Taylor Griffin said. “We’re working to make our NCAA tournament route the easiest route we can take, to give us the best chance to get to the Final Four.
“We feel like we have a legitimate chance of winning this thing as long as we come together and kind of get back on track.”