ALL THAT BRACKET
Cowboys waltz into NCAA Tournament as No. 4 seed
Nine months ago, Oklahoma State was told it was not going to the NCAA Tournament.
It didn’t matter if Cade Cunningham — should he remain with the Cowboys — scored 1,000 points or if the Cowboys went undefeated. They couldn’t be a No. 1 seed or even a No. 16 seed.
A slew of NCAA sanctions including a one-year postseason ban at the time appeared to have OSU facing an empty season and even the loss of an elite recruiting class.
How times have changed.
With an appeal lingering, OSU is back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2017 and is a trendy Final Four pick — a place few expected last summer.
The Cowboys were selected as a No. 4 seed on Selection Sunday, opening with 13th-seeded Liberty on Friday in the Indianapolis area. The Flames (23-5 overall and Atlantic Sun champions) are led by guard Darius McGhee, who averages 15.6 points per game and makes 41.3% of his 3-pointers.
“We’re still going,” Cunningham said. “We’re trying to see how far we can take this.”
How far is anyone’s guess.
But with their recent trend, the Cowboys are not a draw any team in the field welcomes. OSU has lost just twice since Feb. 8, and won six of its last eight games — all against ranked teams. It knocked off No. 1-seeded Baylor in Friday’s Big 12 Tournament semifinal before running into an energized and fresher Texas squad Saturday.
The Cowboys have 10 NCAA N.E.T. Quadrant-1 victories, second most in the nation.
Mostly, that’s happened with the Cowboys as underdogs.
“I feel good that we put ourselves in pretty good position to have a good seed that will presumably give us a chance to be favorites, maybe,” OSU coach Mike Boynton said following Saturday’s game. “We've won a lot of games. I don't know if we've been a favorite in like 15 games.
“We'll be like the first 2 seed to be an underdog if it happens, and we'll be fine with it. We'll just get ourselves as prepared as possible and go play hard and try to advance.”
In June, people scoffed at any NCAA Tournament talk. Most did not realize an appeal could linger past the biggest month of the year, which while undecided allowed OSU to compete as normal.
The sanctions were the result of former assistant Lamont Evans’ involvement in a scheme to accept bribes to influence players. OSU immediately appealed.
Boynton immediately called Cunningham and every player on the roster.
Isaac Likekele was one of the first guys to call Boynton and tell him no matter what he was staying put. Nearly everyone else soon followed.
“He's bought in and he's about the same things that I am,” Boynton said, “and I think that's why we're having this type of success together is because we really value winning at a high level and the work that it takes to get it done.”
The appeal — like the scandal — hung over the program all season. Alabama received no postseason ban. Neither did South Carolina, even though Evans began his involvement in the scheme with the Gamecocks.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys grew closer.
A young team led by Cunningham’s star power and Likekele’s grit, the Cowboys went undefeated in nonconference play. They stumbled out of the gate in Big 12 play, dropping three out of four in heart-breaking fashion.
But that only made the Cowboys stronger.
There is no resolution to the appeal. But the Cowboys are moving full-steam ahead.
And they were grateful for Sunday when their name was called moments before catching a plane from Kansas City, Missouri, to Indianapolis.
A tournament that wasn’t supposed to be is finally here.
“The bond that we have in this locker room, it's just amazing,” Likekele said. “For all of us to come here not knowing that we were able to be in the tournament, that tells you what kind of bond that we've built, that we were going to come here, tournament or not.
“So to go, it means a lot, so we're going to take full advantage of that.”
Jacob Unruh covers college sports for The Oklahoman. You can send your story ideas to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jacobunruh. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.