By NICK SNOW
STILLWATER — When Oklahoma State University freshman Marcus Smart looks back at the recruiting process that brought him to Stillwater, one image still sticks out in his mind — the atmosphere of a packed Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“Me and Phil (Forte) came up here for a game when the Graham brothers were here,” Smart said. “We were real young but we remember that game. … We were doing a little team bonding, so we were like, ‘Let’s come up here and watch Oklahoma State play.’ We came to that game and it was sold out. I can’t remember who they were playing. I think it was Texas Tech, but it was just incredible.”
Over the years Gallagher-Iba Arena has seen its fair share of exciting games — the triple-overtime win against Texas immediately comes to mind, as does last year’s win over No. 2 Missouri. But it’s been 23 years since a ranked non-conference opponent has stepped on the white maple floor.
All that changes Monday when No. 13 Gonzaga pays a visit for a 5 p.m. tipoff on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s a great game to end the year on and to end the non-conference schedule on,” Oklahoma State junior Markel Brown said. “It’s just a great game to prepare us for the Big 12. It’s like a Big 12 game. We’re going up against a top 25 team in Gonzaga. They’ve already beat a couple of Big 12 teams, so it is going to prepare us for the Big 12.”
Gonzaga (12-1) brings the physical nature similar to what Oklahoma State (10-1) will face in conference play.
In fact, the Bulldogs have already defeated four Big 12 opponents, including Friday night’s win over Baylor.
“They’re making their run through the Big 12 and so far they’ve been pretty successful,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said.
“They’ve made their way over halfway through the Big 12. (Their size) is a great challenge, it’s definitely a concern. I don’t know too many teams in America that will match up too well with Gonzaga. They are not only big, but their depth is big.”
Ford was hesitant to call Monday’s game a statement game, but that’s exactly what it is — a chance for the Cowboys to show that they are for real and will be a forced to be reckoned with when the conference season kicks off at Kansas State Saturday.
“I don’t know if it’s a barometer game, but it’s a good judge of where we’re at,” Ford said. “We’re by no means a finished product. We have a lot of room for improvement in our basketball team. Again, this will be a good test for us. It will be a good test to see the things we need to work on going into conference play before we head on the road to Kansas State.”
Smart, on the other hand, knows that a win against Gonzaga could be the thing that brings the magic to a place that captured his attention as a kid.
“It’s definitely a statement game,” Smart said. “We’ve kind of lost the rowdiness at Gallagher and we’re looking forward to bringing it back. This game right here is a launching pad to bring that back, while also getting us ready for the Big 12.
“Gonzaga is a great, physical team. They have the ability to play in the Big 12 and the physicality to do it.”
Oklahoma State has already knocked off one top 25 opponent this season when they defeated then-No. 6 North Carolina State in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. And Smart has played in front of bigger crowds, including the McDonald’s All-American game, than the one that will fill the arena Monday. But that doesn’t mean the freshman isn’t nervous heading into the game.
“There’s always a little bit of nerves from any player, especially going into a big game,” Smart said.
“There’s not as much for me because I’ve been in a situation where I’ve played in front of big crowds before. It really doesn’t faze me as much, but I can’t sit here and say that I don’t have a little bit of butterflies in my stomach for this game. I think it just helps you keep your emotions under control and just have fun and play basketball. Once we get the game going and get into the flow, it will ease up.”