Since CBS, NBC and ABC weren't able to find their way to Stillwater this season, this week's Big Eight tournament in Kansas City will provide the nation's hoops fans with their first real opportunity to check out Oklahoma State. An unlikely bunch of players has put Cowboy basketball back on the map while posing some intriguing questions: Is coach Eddie Sutton really a new man or just the same old con man? Could senior center Johnny Pittman be the worst free throw shooter in NCAA history? And does Byron Houston, the Cowboys' dynamic junior, really deserve his reputation as the league's most vicious hit man?
The Cowboys, who haven't been much of a factor on the national scene since winning back-to-back national titles in 1944-45 and '45-46, are the most engaging team in a weird Big Eight season. Last Saturday, Oklahoma State dropped a 68-67 heartbreaker to Iowa State in Ames and fell to 10-4 in conference play. The defeat opened the way for Kansas, another team of overachievers, to take the conference title outright if it could beat Nebraska on Sunday afternoon in Lincoln. But the Jayhawks also faltered, committing 20 turnovers against the Cornhuskers in the first half and missing eight straight free throws down the stretch, to lose 85-75 and also finish the regular season with a 10-4 league mark.
The mood in Lawrence in 1990-91 has been surprisingly giddy, considering that 6'9" senior center Mark Randall was the only starter returning from last season's 30-5 Jayhawk team, but no more so than in Stillwater. After all, Oklahoma State hadn't won a league title since 1965, when Henry Iba was still five years away from the end of his historic 36-year coaching career with the Cowboys. Now, with a surprising 21-6 regular-season record, Oklahoma State is all but assured of its second trip to the NCAA tournamanent in 26 years.
Still, neither the Cowboys nor the 21-6 Jayhawks are strong enough to be more than cautiously optimistic about their chances in the league tournament, not to mention the NCAAs. While in recent years such traditional Big Eight powers as Oklahoma and Missouri have been regulars among the nation's elite, the 1990-91 conference season was characterized by a parity that even reached Run It Up U, where Sooner coach Billy Tubbs's perennial gusher of talent finally ran dry. Oklahoma, with four league titles in the last eight years, dropped to seventh in the final conference standings. "All those teams that are beating our tails now had better enjoy it," says Tubbs, "because we will be back."
Even so, Oklahoma (16-13) and Colorado (15-12) are hoping to earn the conference's fourth NCAA bid (Kansas, Oklahoma State and Nebraska are near locks for the 64-team field) if they perform impressively in Kansas City. But the spoiler could be fourth-place Missouri, which is ineligible for the NCAAs because it is on probation. The Tigers remain dangerous because of 6'10" senior forward Doug Smith and junior guard Anthony Peeler.
"In the past," says Kansas forward Mike Maddox, a 6'7" senior and the last survivor of the Jayhawks' 1988 NCAA championship team, "the league always had a couple of teams that weren't as good as the others. But this year you knew it was going to be a struggle every game from beginning to end."
The 1989-90 Kansas team, which was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation for 13 consecutive weeks between December 1989 and March 1990, finally ran out of gas against UCLA in the second round of the NCAAs. Coach Roy Williams, who has posted a glittering 71-23 record in his three seasons in Lawrence, took the loss hard because he felt the Jayhawks were good enough to go all the way. He had put the pain behind him by the time the current team opened practice on Oct. 15. By then, Williams knew that his challenge was to create a deeper squad, one built for the long run. His main tasks were to establish 5'11" sophomore Adonis Jordan at point guard and nurture three standout freshmen—6'6" forward Richard Scott and two guards, 6'8" Patrick Richey and 6'4" Steve Woodberry.
The Jayhawks eventually developed an identity, based on their strongest asset: the depth that Williams had sought from the outset. He always has a fresh team on the floor (no player averages more than 29 minutes a game), which is vital to the Jayhawks' frenetic style. They try to get most of their points by creating turnovers with a relentless defensive press or with the fast break. When they have to set up their half-court offense, Jordan does an excellent job of getting the ball inside to the ever-hustling Randall or on the wing to Terry Brown, the three-point specialist.
"One day an NBA scout came by to see Mark," says Williams. "He told me that he could see Mark playing in the pros, but that he didn't like any of my other players. 'AH you do is win,' he said. I took that as a compliment."
Randall, an emotional player, was teary-eyed on Feb. 26 during pregame introductions at his last home game. He then went out with 26 points and 10 rebounds as the Jayhawks beat Iowa State 88-57. On Sunday in Lincoln, he closed out his career with 17 points and 12 boards.