With rare exceptions, college basketball teams go through hot and cold stretches.
Gonzaga experienced tumult in a Dec. 21 loss to Kansas State in Wichita when Sam Dower Jr. went down with a lower back injury and again a week later when Gary Bell Jr. suffered a broken hand against Santa Clara.
The Bulldogs hit another pothole with an 0-2 road trip late in the regular season that threatened to undo their 13-1 conference start. And how might a WCC tournament quarterfinal loss to Santa Clara – a game GU pulled out in the closing seconds – been perceived by the NCAA selection committee?
“It’s crazy,” said junior guard Kevin Pangos, who has been dealing with toe and ankle injuries since early December. “Literally, it was a close call and it could have changed our whole season. But now we’re here and looking forward to the next step.”
That step comes against Oklahoma State, Gonzaga’s opponent Friday in San Diego in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps no team in the country can relate to the Cowboys’ up-down-and-up season.
Oklahoma State opened the season No. 8 in the AP poll. Standout guard Marcus Smart scored 39 points in a 101-80 rout of No. 11 Memphis in Stillwater and the unbeaten Cowboys moved up to fifth. They received one first-place vote.
The Cowboys lost a rematch to Memphis in Orlando and suffered a 74-71 road loss at Kansas State to open Big 12 Conference play. They rebounded with victories over Texas, West Virginia and Texas Christian.
After a narrow road loss to Kansas, OSU defeated West Virginia in late January to improve to 16-3 and climbed to No. 8. Two weeks later, the Cowboys were out of the rankings. Three weeks later they received nary a vote.
Their season veered off course during a seven-game losing streak. In the middle of the skid, Smart was involved in an altercation with a Texas Tech fan and suspended for three games.
“We were going through a few struggles there, no question,” said coach Travis Ford, who has guided OSU to four NCAA appearances in six seasons. “You can only worry about things you can control, which is the next game, but we also knew we better start doing something to make the NCAA tournament.
“Thank goodness we were 16-3 at one time so we’d done a lot of work.”
The Cowboys won five of seven down the stretch, including victories over Kansas and Kansas State. Their losses were to Iowa State and Kansas, both in overtime.
“As much as what was being said about that tough stretch and everybody had pretty much given up on making the NCAA tournament, for us to turn it around and go 5-2. … I think what we’ve done in these seven games, as crazy as the seven-game slide was, our last seven have been pretty good,” Ford said. “Now we have to move on.”
The Cowboys (21-12) are the first Big 12 team to receive an NCAA berth with a losing conference record (8-10), but they carry momentum from their strong finish. ESPN’s Digger Phelps picked OSU to advance to the national title game. A CBS analyst has OSU making the Final Four.
Smart has returned to form. Smart and Markel Brown both scored 21 points in the victory over Kansas and Smart had 27 in the overtime loss to Iowa State. GU coach Mark Few was an assistant on the USA U-18 team – featuring Smart and several future collegiate stars – that won the FIBA Americas tournament two summers ago.
“He’s an unbelievable competitor, unbelievable guy,” Few said. “He’s a lot like some of my guys. If you keep score, he’s going to try to win.”
Few said Smart has improved his perimeter shooting and scores more consistently since GU’s 69-68 win over OSU last season.
“He’s done a great job instilling his personality into that team, and because of that that’s why they were so highly ranked early in the year and why they’re playing so well now,” Few said. “But it’s not just him. Brown, after watching him last year, he’s an NBA player. Le’Bryan Nash has been on the NBA radar forever and I think they have him playing probably the best he’s played in a long time.
“They’re just a really athletic and gifted team.”