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Oklahoma State's Gallagher Hall is a classic snake pit. Built in 1938 for less than $300,000, it is a brick-walled bunker that holds 7,000 fans only if the ticket takers use shoehorns to wedge everybody in. When Cowboy fans are in full voice, playing basketball in Gallagher is like getting your head caught in a giant conch shell. This season, the place is roaring as it hasn't roared since the 1950s, when Henry Iba's teams routinely won Big Eight titles and Oklahoma State zealots deafened each other with clanging cowbells.
After finishing with a 10-17 record and last in the conference in 1979-80, the Cowboys were 16-4 overall at the end of last week and were tied for the Big Eight lead with Nebraska. They were also playing a run-and-gun brand of ball that had made them one of the nation's highest-scoring teams, with 82.9 points a game.
The Cowboys' hurry-up style of play is as startling to the hometown folk in Stillwater as the team's turnaround. For as long as anyone can remember, Oklahoma State—and the entire Big Eight for that matter—has been synonymous with deliberate, low-scoring basketball. The reason: Iba, who relied on a patterned, patient offense while winning 655 games and two NCAA titles during his 36-year stint as the Cowboys' coach. Today Iba is Stillwater's most revered septuagenarian, and he watches every Oklahoma State game from a seat in the southwest corner of Gallagher. One might think that such a renowned purist as Iba would shudder at the sight of half-court passes and streaking dribblers, but he's just another happy Cowboy fan.
"The material you've got dictates what kind of game you're going to have," he says. "If you've got men who can play fast, they're going to play fast. If they're slow, they're going to play slow." Iba can cite numerous reasons for the decline of control basketball, but he stresses that players today are much better shooters than the young men he coached. "A good ball club used to shoot 40%," he says. "Now you're embarrassed if you shoot 40%." And better shooters mean a coach need not put so much emphasis on trying to work the ball inside for an easy layup.
The architect of Oklahoma State's basketball revival is 52-year-old Paul Hansen, who's in his second year as coach at Stillwater. Hansen is an affable man with thinning brown hair, small eyes, a hearing aid and a startled laugh. The laugh may be attributable to nerves because Hansen's first season at OSU, after 24 years of coaching at Oklahoma City University, was enough to put anyone on edge. No sooner had he and his family settled into their new home than burglars stole the microwave oven, the TV, a chain saw and his wife's jewelry. "We lived square in the middle of the highest crime area in Oklahoma City and were never touched," Hansen says. "We get into white, conservative America, and we're ripped off!"
A few weeks later a pickup truck hit one of the family's dogs, which recovered only to be hit again, this time fatally. Another pooch, a valuable Schipperke, disappeared, presumably stolen.
Now for the bad news: in last season's first game, Hansen's star player, a, get this, guard-center named Matt Clark, went down with a knee injury. Out for the year. Four minutes later, Don Youman, Oklahoma State's top rebounder in 1978-79, tried to slap the ball off the glass and damaged two tendons in his left thumb on the flange of the basket. Out for nine games. Seven weeks later, Leroy Combs and Ricky Jacobs, two frontcourt starters, were sidelined with bad grades. Little wonder the Cowboys struggled.
"Hey, I'm a happy guy," says Hansen, shrugging off last year's misfortunes. "Shucks, those things are just going to happen." Presumably, it was this jolly fatalism that sustained Hansen after he showed up for preseason practice feeling ill. Assistant Coach Wayne Ballard frowned and said, "Coach, have you looked at your eyes lately?" Hansen checked them in a mirror. They were as yellow as the gym floor in Gallagher.
Four weeks in bed with hepatitis gave Hansen plenty of time to think. Both his top scorer and leading rebounder had used up their eligibility. He didn't have a solid pivotman, and the early schedule had the Cowboys going almost a month without a game in Gallagher, an unpromising prospect for a team that had dropped 17 straight on the road. On the other hand, Clark was back, still a sophomore after a hardship ruling, and the front line suddenly looked formidable with the return of Combs and Jacobs, who had regained good scholastic standing. With Hansen issuing orders from his bedroom command post, Ballard and fellow Assistant Coach Ken Turner ran the Cowboys ragged in practice, working on the theory that a team makes its own luck.
Junior Guard Eddie Harmon, who rarely shoots, proved them right. In the season's second game, Hannon beat defending NCAA champion Louisville in Stillwater with a 45-foot shot at the buzzer. It was his only field goal of the day. Oklahoma State fans were delirious, and the Cowboys suddenly felt lucky. Alcorn State fell 86-85 on a last-second layup by the willowy Combs, who proved it was no fluke by doing the same to Oklahoma in an 87-85 win a few weeks later.