KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Oklahoma State continues to make college basketball as difficult as possible.
Its previous coach (Brad Underwood) left abruptly last March after one season for Illinois.
Underwood’s top assistant Mike Boynton then took over. Head coaching experience? Zero.
In September, Boynton’s associate head coach Lamont Evans was charged with fraud and bribery in the now infamous roundup by the FBI.
Leading scorer Jeffrey Carroll was suspended three games to start the season. Boynton kicked two other players off the team.
Now stuff all that into a current bracketology blender. A victory against Oklahoma in the first round of the Big 12 tournament Wednesday might leave the men’s basketball selection committee with one of its toughest decisions.
The Cowboys (19-13) have some of the top wins of any team this season. They also began Wednesday with an NCAA RPI of 89. That would be the lowest RPI of any tournament team since the formula was changed in 2005.
A conundrum grows.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” Boynton said after that 71-60 victory against the Sooners. “I had a lot of stuff to deal with. The character of the kids is what gives you a chance. If I’ve got a bunch of knuckleheads, this thing implodes a long time ago.”
Instead, the Cowboys have become a fingernails-on-chalk-board crew that is a witch to play against. Ask Oklahoma, which was methodically ground down in three meetings. The Cowboys went from allowing 109 in the first meeting to 81 to 60.
Oklahoma State won two of the three and might have knocked the Sooners out of the NCAA Tournament. Previously, the Cowboys became the first Big 12 team to sweep a season series from Bill Self at Kansas (by a combined 23 points). They finished 4-2 against the top three teams in the league (Kansas, West Virginia, Texas Tech).
But that RPI is being weighed down by nonconference games against Charlotte, Houston Baptist and Mississippi Valley State — all three with sub-300 RPIs.
“They’re still alive,” CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm said of the Cowboys. “I said before the Big 12 tournament that they needed to get past Kansas to entertain a conversation about their prospects. That is still true.”
A third meeting with Kansas in the Big 12 quarterfinals on Thursday should be dripping with desperation.
“None,” Boynton countered. “I don’t operate that way. People that have been around me … You don’t have to be desperate when you have success.”
Things are actually sort of falling into place for the Cowboys. Kansas will be without its center Udoka Azubuike due to a sprained MCL. Boynton wasn’t aware of that until after the OU game.
“The thing they do best is shoot threes,” Boynton said of Kansas. “He doesn’t shoot any of them. It’s not like Azubuike plays 35 minutes a game. It’s just that when he’s in there, you gotta have a plan.”
The Cowboys’ plan is to continue to be that team you can’t quite profile. Statistically, they don’t do anything especially well except shoot free throws (35th nationally). Every starter plays at least 20 minutes, only one more than 30 (Carroll). Sophomore forward Cameron McGriff plays the fewest minutes of the starters. He erupted for 18 points and nine rebounds against the Sooners.
“Cam is a microcosm of what our program will be, really embraced the hard work mentality,” Boynton said. “We’re not at a point where we’re bringing in a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans that people assume are pros. Maybe that’s why people don’t think we’re any good to start with.”
The intent remains to be as difficult as possible. The Cowboys have played their way into the NCAA Tournament conversation by winning four of their past five. Previously, Oklahoma State has won at Allen Fieldhouse and WVU Coliseum. The Cowboys will face an overwhelmingly hostile crowd Thursday at the Sprint Center.
Not bad for a program that lost its coach, was tainted by the FBI probe and had a 36-year-old no-name as Underwood’s replacement.
“Everyone thought I was going to suck …” Boynton told CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander last month.
How hard can it be keeping this roll going? The last time a team beat Kansas three times in a season was Oklahoma State in 1983 — when Self played for the Cowboys.
“I thought we were in [the tournament] all along,” Boynton said.