DAYTON, Ohio (AP)—No two-hour bus ride over Oklahoma’s flat, scruffy landscape to reach the airport, followed by another two-hour ride after touchdown to complete the odyssey and make it to the gym for tipoff.
Direct flight? Sweet!
“It’s very different,” Oklahoma State guard Byron Eaton said Thursday, still taken aback by the Cowboys’ no-hassle trip to the University of Dayton Arena. “We were able to fly out of our own airport in Stillwater. Things are better when you make it to the NCAA tournament.”
Forgive the Cowboys. It’s been awhile since they’ve done anything like this, and that’s one of coach Travis Ford’s biggest concerns as they get ready to play Tennessee—an NCAA frequent flyer—in the first round on Friday. It’s tough to act like you’ve been there when you haven’t.
Oklahoma State (22-11) hasn’t been in the tournament since 2005, when the Cowboys reached the round of 16 under coach Eddie Sutton a year after making it to the Final Four. The Cowboys were becoming entrenched as a national power—or so it seemed.
They were about to make a U-turn.
Sutton’s career at the school ended after he got into an accident in February 2006. He later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor aggravated drunken driving and two other charges. His son, Sean, took over the program but couldn’t get it back into the tournament. Recruits turned away. The program’s profile slumped.
Oklahoma State became a mainstay in the NIT, going to that tournament three straight seasons and losing in the first round each time. One of the low points was the trip that Eaton remembers last season—a bus ride from Stillwater to Oklahoma City, a flight to St. Louis, another bus ride to Carbondale, Ill., a 16-point loss to Southern Illinois.
Think the trip back was much fun?
Maybe that’s why Ford’s players were still giddy when they took the court Monday in Stillwater to start getting ready for the NCAA tournament—heady stuff for a team more accustomed to Carbondale. The first-year coach had to stop practice and start it over.
“We told them, ‘You’re just having fun in practice today,”’ Ford said. “And we had to refocus them and make them understand that yes, you should feel proud of yourself; yes, you should be excited; yes, this is a great accomplishment. But that’s over with. You’ve made it. Now we have to move on from this.”
No such problem for Tennessee (21-12), which is making its fourth straight appearance. Unlike the last three times, though, the Volunteers aren’t one of the teams expected to go deep into the tournament. Their up-and-down season in the Southeastern Conference got them a ninth seed—Oklahoma State is No. 8— that is their worst since 1989.
Last year, the Volunteers had a No. 2 seed and made it to the round of 16 before losing to Louisville by 19 points, a jolting finish that still smarts a bit. When asked about it on Thursday, forward Tyler Smith jokingly shot back, “You from Louisville?”
Jokes aside, Tennessee knows it’s going to be tougher to get past the second round for the second year in a row. The matchup against Oklahoma State could turn into one of those whoever-has-the-ball-last games—both teams like a fast pace and don’t mind a score in the 80s.
“No lead is safe with Oklahoma State,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “They can be ahead by a bunch, and because of the way they play, if you can get a few stops, you have a chance to crawl back into it. By the same token, if they’re down, you better keep scoring because they’re going to keep shooting it.”
It’ll be the third time in the last four seasons that the schools have played. Each time, the Cowboys have had a different head coach—the two Suttons and now Ford. The schools split those two games, and both teams have since changed their styles. Oklahoma State has gone to a more wide-open offense, and Tennessee has backed off on its pressing defense.
Whoever wins knows what’s next: likely a matchup with No. 1 seed Pittsburgh on Sunday.
“And that’s when you start to get into that one-shining-moment stuff, where, ‘Can Oklahoma State or Tennessee pull off what would be a huge upset?’ ” Pearl said. “Be careful what you wish for, of course. But still, that’s why we’re in this tournament, to try to make something special happen.”
For Oklahoma State, it’s special already.