When Marcus Smart made the surprising decision to bypass the NBA draft and return to college last spring, he did so with the idea of leading Oklahoma State to its first Final Four in a decade.
Ten months later, Smart will need to help the Cowboys salvage a once-promising season just to make it to the NCAA tournament at all.
Smart will return from his three-game suspension Saturday against Texas Tech with the Cowboys buried in second-to-last place in the Big 12 with a conference record of 4-9. A 70-64 overtime loss at Baylor on Monday night was Oklahoma State's seventh consecutive loss and its eighth in nine games.
All hope of an NCAA bid isn't lost yet thanks to quality early-season wins over Memphis, Colorado and Texas, but Oklahoma State's margin for error is becoming Kate Moss thin. Unless the Cowboys win at least three of their final five regular season games against Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State, they'd probably have to win the Big 12 tournament to earn an NCAA bid.
A win at fellow bubble team Baylor certainly would have helped Oklahoma State's cause, but the Cowboys (16-10, 4-9) couldn't protect a 10-point second-half lead. Baylor rallied behind 25 points from Cory Jefferson and a strong defensive second half, though the Bears made it more difficult on themselves than they needed to with a near-disastrous gaffe in the final seconds of regulation.
Having already missed a chance to ice the game at the foul line seconds earlier, Baylor still found itself inbounding the ball with a three-point lead and less than four seconds left in regulation. Leyton Hammonds stepped in front of Gary Franklin's inbound pass and buried a right-wing 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation, giving Oklahoma State new life and sending the game to overtime.
Credit Baylor for steadying itself and responding in overtime by out-playing the Cowboys. Jefferson delivered a momentum-changing 3-pointer to open the scoring, then clinched the game with a pair of free throws with 20 seconds remaining.
Markel Brown and Phil Forte kept Oklahoma State competitive with a combined 45 points, but the Cowboys didn't have enough remaining talent to survive a foul-plagued off night from Le'Bryan Nash. In addition to Smart's absence, Travis Ford's team lost starting center Michael Cobbins to a season-ending Achilles tear in January and backup guard Stevie Clark to disciplinary issues a few weeks later.
The question now is whether Smart's return will be enough to jump-start the Cowboys for one last push.
On one hand, Oklahoma State showed impressive tenacity in the face of adversity its last two games after giving a dismal effort in the first game of Smart's suspension. On the other hand, the Cowboys' losing streak started well before Smart had to sit out, so there's certainly no guarantee his presence can turn things around.