By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Marcus Smart made his decision to forgo the NBA Draft and return for his sophomore season, one of the deciding factors was how his freshman season ended. Oklahoma State made the NCAA Tournament but lost its first game.
"I didn't like that feeling at all," Smart said. "That's one of the reasons I came back. So I'm going to do everything in my ability to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Oklahoma State, a No. 9 seed in the West Regional, takes on No. 8 Gonzaga Friday in San Diego. The Cowboys at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament has been part of a roller coaster season.
Senior center Michael Cobbins was lost for the season on Dec. 30. Smart's three-game suspension gained national attention and came during a seven-game losing streak that nearly sunk the season.
But since Smart returned to the court, Oklahoma State has won five of seven with the two losses coming in overtime to Iowa State (a No. 3 NCAA seed) and Kansas (a No. 2 seed).
"This team has made my decision to come back well worth my while," Smart said Thursday. "These are a group of guys that I've got a bond with that will never be broken. We're going to go out there and have fun and play basketball."
A year ago, Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed. The Zags were upset in the round of 32 by No. 9 seed Wichita State, which made the Final Four.
"This year we're floating under the radar, which is fine by us," Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos said. "No. 8 seed, nothing guaranteed, and we're just trying to take care of business. We learned last year that at this time anything is possible, but it is a little bit of a different feeling."
Gonzaga and Oklahoma State met last season with the Zags taking a 69-68 victory on New Year's Eve 2012. The Cowboys are 0-5 against Gonzaga.
3:40 p.m. Friday, San Diego
No. 9 Oklahoma State (21-12) vs. No. 8 Gonzaga (28-6)
Probable Oklahoma State starters: Marcus Smart, 6-4 Soph. G; Phil Forte, 5-11 Soph. G; Markel Brown, 6-3 Sr. G; Le'Bryan Nash, 6-7 Jr. F; Kamari Murphy, 6-8 Soph. F/C.
Probable Gonzaga starters: Sam Dower, 6-9 Sr. F; Kevin Pangos, 6-2 Jr. G; Gary Bell Jr., 6-2 Jr. G; David Stockton, 5-11 Sr. G; Przemek Karnowski, 7-1 Soph. C.
Fast breaks: Ten of Oklahoma State's 12 losses have been by two or fewer possessions or in overtime. Of those 10 losses, six were by one possession or in OT. … Cowboys senior guard Markel Brown has improved his scoring average each season. He averaged 8.4 as a freshman, 12.1 as a sophomore, 16.6 as a junior and is averaging 17.1 per game this season. … Gonzaga is in the NCAA tournament for the 16th straight year and the 17th time in school history. The Bulldogs have won at least one game in each of their last five appearances. … Senior guard David Stockton is the son of former Gonzaga player and NBA hall of famer John Stockton. … Gonzaga beat West Virginia and lost to Kansas State in non-conference play.
What's next: The winner of Oklahoma State-Gonzaga plays on Sunday against the winner of No. 1 Arizona and No. 16 Weber State.