LAWRENCE, Kan. — The newest rivalry in the Big 12 is becoming so intense that no one—and I mean no one—can resist a little trash-talking.
Not even a guy on crutches.
Balancing on one foot after his team’s 80-78 loss to Kansas, injured Oklahoma State forward Michael Cobbins lifted his wooden props into the air, pointed them toward a sea of Jayhawks fans in the Allen Fieldhouse stands and began to shout.
“I can’t wait ‘til y’all come to Stillwater,” said Cobbins, who is sidelined with a torn Achilles. “I can’t wait ‘til y’all come to Stillwater.”
Exciting as Kansas-Oklahoma State II promises to be March 1 at Gallagher-Iba Arena, it will be tough to top what happened Saturday, when the Cowboys shaved a 19-point deficit to two in one of the most impressive comebacks by any team this season.
Oklahoma State failed to get off a shot on the game’s final possession, but that hardly caused the Cowboys to mope as they trotted to their locker room.
“We’re leaving here with our heads held high,” guard Markel Brown said. “We showed a lot of toughness and heart. It’s a shame only one team could win, because those were two great teams out there battling.”
Brown is right.
No. 15 Kansas and No. 9 Oklahoma State aren’t just good teams.
They’re great teams.
And now, more than ever, that’s exactly what the conference needs.
For the past few weeks, national college basketball analysts across the country have labeled the Big 12 as the best league in the nation. In some ways it’s tough to argue. Six Big 12 teams have appeared in the Associated Press Top 25 poll at some point this season—including four in the Top 10—and a seventh squad (Texas) could crack the poll next week.
I don’t have access to the stats, but in recent history, I can’t imagine there are many conferences that have had 70 percent of their teams ranked in a single season.
“I don’t know if it’s even a debate,” Oklahoma State’s Travis Ford said. “Our teams are by far the best.”
Now it’s time to prove it.
That’s been a problem for the Big 12 in the past. Oklahoma State reached the Final Four in 2004. In the nine years since, however, only one school (Kansas in 2008 and 2012) has represented the conference on college basketball’s biggest stage.
|Final Fours by major conferences since 2005|
Six different Big East teams have made the Final Four in that time span. The Big Ten has had four squads make it while the SEC (three) and the ACC (two) also have better numbers than the Big 12.
To truly garner the respect its coaches think it deserves, the Big 12 needs a second brand-name school other than Kansas to solidify itself as a consistent Final Four contender. The ACC has always had Duke and North Carolina. Kentucky and Florida rule the SEC and Michigan State and Ohio State are the alpha dogs in the Big Ten.
In the Big 12 it’s Kansas and, well...Kansas.
“They’ve been such an elite program for so long,” Ford said. “They’re very, very tough to beat. It’s the same story every year.”
Texas used to have the manpower to alter that narrative—or at least threaten to. But these days Oklahoma State is the team best equipped to enhance the Big 12’s reputation by making the Final Four.
Smart should be a shoo-in for first-team All-American honors, Brown and Phil Forte (who combined to go 12-of-19 from three-point range Saturday) are two of the most underrated guards in the nation, while players such as Kamari Murphy, Brian Williams and Le’Bryan Nash play with a swagger that is vital to thrive in environments like the one the Cowboys entered Saturday.
“They’re good enough to beat anyone in the country,” Self said.
And that includes Kansas, which is now 13-4 overall and 4-0 in conference play. Other than Kansas State (4-1), every other team in the Big 12 has at least at least two league losses. The Jayhawks have been so impressive that radio talk show hosts and posters on message boards have opined that the real race in the Big 12 will be for second place.
The Jayhawks, they say, might as well be handed the trophy for the 10th straight year.
Self laughed at that suggestion. The Jayhawks, after all, won 19 of their first 20 games last season and were 7-0 in the Big 12 before losing three straight games. As a result KU ended up sharing the conference title with Kansas State.
“It’s too early,” Self said of the Big 12 title talk. “It’s like being ahead in the second inning in baseball. It’s doesn’t matter. We’ve got to make sure we keep trying to get better every day. There are no off nights. If you watched Texas Tech play the other day...they were good. They were good.”
So, too, was Oklahoma State against Kansas Saturday, when officials whistled both teams for a combined seven technical and flagrant fouls.
“Emotions were flying everywhere,” Smart said.
The Cowboys hardly lacked confidence as they left Allen Fieldhouse. Smart even called the game a “moral victory.” Ford disagreed, but said he likes where his team is headed entering the toughest stretch of the season.
Ford said he’s approaching things differently than he did a year ago, when the Cowboys were upset by Oregon in the second round of the NCAA tournament. He said the rigors of playing in the Big 12 left his team feeling worn down by mid-March, a factor that may have contributed to the Cowboys’ early postseason exit.
“We started scaling back our practices a month ago,” Ford said. “The strength of this league is brutal—just brutal. For two months we’re beating each other up.”
Six of the Big 12’s 10 coaches have led teams to the Final Four.
“I know I’m biased,” Ford said, “but schools from other conferences don’t have to go through the gauntlet that we go through where we play everyone twice. Hopefully we can all make adjustments and prove ourselves in the Big Dance.”
But before the NCAA tournament occurs, there’s another game the Cowboys will have highlighted on their schedule: the March 1 rematch with Kansas.
“I guess you could say we’ve got a rivalry with Kansas now,” Brown said. “We definitely can’t wait until that time comes. One of the reasons Marcus and I returned to this team was to win a Big 12 championship. We feel like we’ll be right there in the mix. If they could drop a game before they come and play us again, that’s be great.”
“Of course, we need to win all our games until then, too,” he said. “And that won’t be easy.”
Especially not in the Big 12.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.