BY JEFF LATZKE
STILLWATER — Even though the NCAA tournament is still a couple weeks away, No. 13 Oklahoma State is getting ready for a taste of the postseason right now.
With a road game at Iowa State on Wednesday night and a home game against No. 9 Kansas State on Saturday, the degree of difficulty has increased during a challenging week for the Cowboys (22-6, 12-4 Big 12).
The Cyclones (19-10, 9-7) have lost only one of their 16 games at Hilton Coliseum this season, and that one featured a controversial finish with the Big 12 later issuing a statement that officials made mistakes. Kansas State (24-5, 13-3) is behind No. 5 Kansas and just ahead of Oklahoma State in the standings.
“It’s kind of like the NCAA tournament. Everybody’s good and we’re playing for something every game now,” Cowboys forward Le’Bryan Nash said. “We go to Iowa State, one of the toughest places to play. I’d rather play at Kansas than Iowa State. When you have a team that can just shoot 3s at home, it gets crazy. It’s a crazy place. I experienced that last year when they hit the game-winning shot, and I couldn’t even hear nothing.”
The Cowboys and Cyclones have played a series of classics over Nash’s two seasons, with each of the past three meetings being decided on a basket within the final 5 seconds of overtime. Iowa State’s Scott Christopherson banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win last season’s game in Ames, and Nash had the game-winning jumper with 4.7 seconds left in the rematch.
Marcus Smart made the winning basket with 3.1 seconds left in Oklahoma State’s 78-76 win in Stillwater this season.
“I hope it’s close. I hope we get a chance,” coach Travis Ford said. “We know it’s a great challenge down there. We’ve had some great games and we have a lot of respect for them. They’re one of the most powerful offensive teams there is in the country, and they can score from every position and create a lot of mismatch problems.”
The Cyclones are considered on the bubble for the NCAA tournament and need every quality win they can get. To make it even more emotional, it will be senior night as a handful of Iowa State players play at home for the last time.
“For us, it’s a great test for us to prepare ourselves hopefully for postseason play, as well as trying to win basketball games. It’s going to be some great challenges,” Ford said. “It’s a very difficult week, as difficult of a week as we’ve probably had as far as opponents.”
With a pair of wins, Oklahoma State would be able to move up to the No. 2 seed in next week’s Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo. It would take a loss by Kansas to get the Cowboys a share of the regular-season championship.
“We still have a chance to win it. We need a lot of things to go right for us to win it,” reserve Brian Williams said. “And then we’ve still got the Big 12 tournament. Of course, we’re trying to win that. We’ve got some ball left before the NCAA tournament.”
The Cowboys have won 10 of their last 11 games, with the only loss coming in double overtime against Kansas two weeks ago. They’ve also won five straight road games, after having just one all of last season and starting out 0-4 on the road this season. That streak started with a confidence-building win at Kansas a month ago.
“If you can win at Allen Fieldhouse, you can win pretty much anywhere,” guard Phil Forte said. “But you can also lose anywhere, especially in the Big 12, if you don’t bring your A-game that night. So, we just have to go in there with a mindset and just be really dialed in and focused. They almost beat us here.”
The difficult last week of the regular season gives the Cowboys the chance to peak at the right time, just when the games are the most meaningful.
“March Madness, it’s what it’s all about,” Forte said. “We can just learn from each and every game and continue to just improve on a few little things and just continue to keep that momentum going.”