When Marcus Smart announced his decision last spring to return for his sophomore season at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys were instantly dubbed Big 12 favorites.
Finally, it seemed, a team not named Kansas was destined for a conference championship.
Fast forward to the days leading up to the start of college basketball, and that is no longer the case. Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s top-ranked recruit, chose Kansas. Along with a much-hyped freshman class and a handful of dependable returners, he once again made the Jayhawks league favorites.
OK, so technically they were co-favorites in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll, but tie goes to the team that has won nine straight Big 12 championships — even when the top contender returns Smart, Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown.
That attention swap seemed to sting Oklahoma State. Smart has publicly questioned why so many have dubbed Wiggins, and not him, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year.
For Cowboys coach Travis Ford, though, the overall goal hasn’t changed.
“We talk a lot about understanding what our goals are and what we want to try to accomplish,” Ford said. “Winning a Big 12 championship is something that we strive to do. It’s something we talk about, but we fully grasp that Kansas is still a team to beat. I think any coach would tell you that. They’re still the team in the Big 12 that everybody’s trying to compete with.
“We understand the expectations of this team. Our guys hear it every day from the fans and the media and the positive things that are said, and we’ve embraced it in the fact that, yes, we think we have a pretty decent team. But we have to be humble enough to understand that expectation hasn’t ever won anything for anybody. We’ve got to be humble enough to handle it and hungry enough to get a little bit better each and every day.”
The key to a conference championship will be the improvement of Oklahoma State’s big three. Nash has been up and down in past years, dominating some games and disappearing in others. Brown has been a consistent scorer, but he needs to take his game to the next level. Smart was Big 12 Player of the Year a season ago, and his mixture of strong defense and explosive offense helped Oklahoma State finish third in the conference standings, but his high-flying emotions hurt his team at times.
All signs point to those improvements happening, though Ford, a longtime underachiever, may need to get out of the way. Smart could have been a top five pick in the NBA Draft. He didn’t return to college to play on a mediocre team.
Oklahoma State won at Kansas last season, and Smart celebrated with a backflip. The Cowboys were good enough to win the Big 12 a year ago, but they stumbled too many times along the way. The Big 12 will be down this year, so upsets will be less of a risk.
A true rivalry between the Jayhawks and Cowboys has been born. Smart vs. Wiggins will be must-see TV. They split the series last season.
Their games this year might decide who wins a conference championship.