By Jeff Latzke, AP Sports Writer
STILLWATER, Okla. —
After suffering through Oklahoma State’s first losing season in 24 years, forward Le’Bryan Nash watched last year’s NCAA tournament with one thought on his mind: “We’ve got to be there next year.”
With Nash and Big 12 player of the year Marcus Smart leading the way, the Cowboys (24-8) are on the bracket for the first time in three years and will play Pac-12 tournament champion Oregon on Thursday in San Jose, Calif. Oklahoma State received a No. 5 seed, its best in three trips under coach Travis Ford and the highest since getting seeded second in 2005.
“It’s just so great to be in the NCAA tournament,” Nash said Sunday after the pairings were announced. “Not the NIT. Not not in the tournament like we was last year. Now, we’re playing in March. Last year, we weren’t playing in March. Now we are, and we’re part of the madness. Can we go far in the tournament? It’s up to us.”
The Cowboys have high hopes after winning 11 of their last 13 regular-season games and finishing third in the Big 12, then losing to Kansas State in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
“We played two of the No. 1 seeds, and I think we only lost to both of them by one,” said Nash, correctly remembering OSU lost 69-68 to Gonzaga on New Year’s Eve and 68-67 to Kansas in double overtime. The Cowboys also won at Kansas. “That just shows how good we are and how we can make a run in this tournament if we just believe in each other.”
Oklahoma State has dramatically improved after going 15-18 last season while dealing with a series of injuries and player departures. Smart and high-school teammate Phil Forte came in and immediately made an impact.
“We’ve kind of proven that we deserve to be there, but that all goes out the window now,” Smart said. “Whatever’s in the past is in the past. We have a new goal to reach and to start a new legacy of Oklahoma State. The first game is Thursday.”
Ford said his gut feeling was that the 14th-ranked Cowboys would end up with a No. 5 seed and open the tournament in San Jose, but he couldn’t have guessed their first opponent. The winner of the game will face either No. 4 seed Saint Louis, which won the Atlantic 10 regular-season and conference championship, or two-time WAC champion New Mexico State.
“I think when you’re in that five spot, there’s so many different teams you can play depending on seeds and winning conference championships and things like that,” Ford said.
“We’re excited going out to the West Coast. I think that’s good for our basketball team. Let’s get away, focus and have some great days of preparation. But it’s a quick game Thursday for us being here. Obviously, it’s not a very long trip for Oregon, not a very long trip at all for them.”
Oregon (26-8), which last went to the NCAA tournament in 2008, tied for second in the Pac-12 before winning the conference tournament for the first time. The Ducks went to the NIT last season.
It will be just the second meeting ever between the teams, with Oregon winning a 1987 game in Portland.
“I don’t think it will be an upset if we win,” Ducks coach Dana Altman said at his team’s selection announcement.
While Oregon recovered from back-to-back losses to Colorado and Utah that cost them the Pac-12 regular-season title to win the league tournament, Oklahoma State is coming off what Ford called “one of our poorer performances” in the loss to K-State.
“It doesn’t matter at this point whether you’re playing good or bad. It really doesn’t,” Ford said. “If you’re playing good, it doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to play good the next game. If you’re playing bad, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to play bad the next game.”
“Obviously we’ve got a very tough Oregon team who’s playing their best basketball right now, who’s coming off a Pac-12 championship victory, which in itself says enough,” he added. “You really don’t need to say anything else: They just won the Pac-12 championship.”
Ford said he’s focused on making corrections in the next couple days, and believes the Cowboys belong on a list of “20 or so teams that could win on any day” in an NCAA tournament he sees as wide open.
“We’ve won a lot of close games. We’ve won games in different fashions — up-tempo, slow down. We’ve won on the road, we’ve won at neutral sites,” Ford said. “We’ve done a little bit of everything. ... We’ve been through a lot for a young basketball team that hopefully will prepare us for the challenges of this NCAA tournament.”
Part of it is approaching the pressure-packed postseason with the right mindset, Nash said.
“We just need to have fun, stop trying to get down on ourselves and just go out there and play,” Nash said. “We know we’re a good team. We’ve just got to keep playing.”ꆱ