Seeding slight can work in OSU's favor
Oklahoma State is good enough to be a No. 3 seed.
Maybe even a No. 2.
The Cowboys beat all of the No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament — even dispatched one of them twice — and they have a win over one of the No. 1 seeds. But alas, the Cowboys will go into the tournament as a No. 4 seed.
One word: TCU.
More on that in a minute.
Even though the Cowboys falling to a No. 4 seed is at best a bummer and at worst highway robbery, it is one more thing Mike Boynton and Co. have going for them. Before the bracket was announced Sunday afternoon — with the Cowboys facing Liberty at 5:25 p.m. Friday — OSU wasn’t a team that opponents were lining up to face. Now, the Cowboys ride into the tournament feeling slighted. That may well make them the tournament's toughest out.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in what OSU didn’t get Sunday, but let’s focus for a minute on what the Cowboys are taking into the tournament, what they have.
Because the list is long.
For starters, OSU has the best player in the tournament. Cade Cunningham might not win national player of the year — great players on great teams always have a leg up for such awards, so stars like Drew Timme and Corey Kispert from Gonzaga, Jared Butler from Baylor and Luke Garza from Iowa are probably frontrunners — but no single player is better than Cunningham. He is first-pick-in-the-NBA-Draft good. He is a momentum swing waiting to happen.
Having a guy who can single handedly take over a game is a huge advantage in the NCAA Tournament, and Cunningham can do that better than any other player in college basketball.
What’s more, he rarely seems rattled. He plays at his own pace, and when the pressure is ratcheted up, he plays even better.
Cunningham seems the perfect weapon to take into the win-or-go-home games of the NCAA Tournament.
The next thing the Cowboys have going for them is knowing how to beat good teams. Really good teams. This season, they have done it a lot, rolling up 10 Quadrant 1 victories.
Now, if you aren’t well-versed in NCAA Tournament selection criteria, numerous factors are considered. One is the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, a formula which includes a team’s winning percentage, average opponent’s winning percentage, average opponent’s opponent’s winning percentage and on and on.
But once the ranking is produced, every game a team plays goes in one of four quads. Quad 1 is best, Quad 4 worst. What designation a game gets is not solely based on where the opponent is ranked, but that is a big factor.
OSU has 10 wins in the top quad.
By comparison, only one other team in the country has double-digit Quad 1 wins: Illinois with 12.
(FYI: I asked selection committee chairman Mitch Barnhart during a Sunday evening teleconference if the group considers the possibility of juicy down-the-road matchups when seeding the bracket since OSU could face Illinois and former coach Brad Underwood in the Sweet 16.
“We do not,” he said.
I will let you do with that what you will, Cowboy fans.)
OSU has defeated Baylor, Kansas, Arkansas, West Virginia (twice), Texas, Texas Tech (twice) and OU (twice). The Cowboys also have wins against Wichita State, Oral Roberts and Texas Southern, three more NCAA Tournament teams.
The Cowboys go into the tournament with an understanding of how to beat good teams. They have done several times and in different ways, including with Cunningham and team leader Isaac Likekele sidelined, so no matter the foe or the circumstance, they have the confidence they can win.
Now, they also have the motivation.
After Sunday’s announcement, the Cowboys were upbeat about their selection. It’s been four years since OSU made the tournament, a dozen years since the program won a game. And since the Cowboys were slapped with a postseason ban last summer, they didn’t even know if they’d be eligible.
An appeal is still pending on that NCAA punishment, opening the door for OSU's inclusion.
But after winning six of their last eight games, including a narrow five-point loss to the Longhorns in the Big 12 championship game, the Cowboys thought they had a case for a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. Why wouldn’t they?
So of course there was disappointment when they fell to a No. 4. Why wouldn’t there be?
“They had an unbelievable season,” Barnhart, the selection committee chairman, said. “They’ve obviously had a really wonderful run here at the end of the year.”
“They also have a couple of losses in Quad 3,” Barnhart said, referring to OSU’s losses to TCU. “We used some of the predictive metrics to drive a lot of our discussion around our seeding, and the combination of those and the two losses in Quad 3 was something that we actually valued as they went through the (Big 12) tournament.”
Just so you know, no team seeded higher than OSU has more than one Quad 3 loss. Ten of the 12 have no such losses.
OSU has two.
The Cowboys’ Quad 1 wins helped cancel out some of the weight of those bad losses.
“They did move up a seed line as we looked at them towards the end of the week,” Barnhart said of OSU’s two stout wins at the Big 12 tournament. “They're certainly an exciting team to watch.”
Still, those clunkers against TCU were too much to overcome.
Who’d have thought, right?
But here’s the thing: OSU is no longer the same team that lost those games. The Cowboys evolved and matured and improved. They became a team that could not only compete with any team but also beat them. They became one of the best teams in the country.
So, yes, they go into the NCAA Tournament with a seeding that doesn’t represent just how good they are.
Consider it just one more thing OSU has going for it.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.