How Important Is Saturday Night's Game?

Is Saturday night's game against Kansas the biggest game in Travis Ford's six years at Oklahoma State? The Cowboys head coach calls it "the next game" on the schedule but it's much more than that for an OSU team that is attempting to improve its NCAA Tournament résumé following a recent seven-game losing streak. But a win over the nation's fifth-ranked team would be impressive.

Although the Cowboys still have games against Kansas State on Monday night in Stillwater and at Iowa State next weekend to complete the regular season, a win over the Jayhawks would send a message to college basketball fans across the nation, including members of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

And there may not be a better opponent to play to send that message than the KU Jayhawks, who clinched a share of their 10th consecutive Big 12 regular season championship with Monday night's victory over Oklahoma.

The Cowboys, 18-10 overall and 6-9 in Big 12 play, host the Jayhawks, 22-6 and 13-2, in a nationally televised (ESPN) game Saturday night. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.

OSU is 1-2 in its last three games inside Gallagher-Iba Arena against Kansas, including the 85-77 win over the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks on Feb. 27, 2010. The Cowboys nearly swept both games against the Jayhawks during the 2012-13 season, winning inside Allen Fieldhouse before suffering a 68-67 double overtime loss in Stillwater.

Travis Ford's teams have won only two of nine games against the Jayhawks during his tenure at OSU, but the two victories came when KU was ranked No. 1 (in 2010) and No. 2 (2013).

Cowboys point guard Marcus Smart has been outstanding since returning to the lineup following a three-game suspension. He is averaging 16.5 points, 8.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds in victories over Texas Tech and TCU in the last seven days.

"It's a game we really need to win for our basketball program," Smart said of Saturday's game against KU. "Kansas is a great team and obviously they clinched part of the Big 12, so they're going to try to come in and win it outright here, and we're going to try to stop them."

Ford has been pleased with Smart, who nearly had a triple-double in OSU's 80-78 loss to KU on Jan. 18 at Allen Fieldhouse. He finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in the game, and is averaging 19.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.7 steals in three games against the Jayhawks the past two seasons.

"I think everybody has made a lot of comments about it looks like he's having more fun and all that," Ford said of Smart. "I think the last two games he's played the way that's made him one of the best players in America. Just look across the stat sheet and there's a lot of big numbers, from assists to steals to blocks to rebounds to points. When he's doing that it makes him great and it makes our team a lot better.

"Is he having more fun? Sure, I guess. We've won two, so that helps; everybody has more fun (when you win). But I think our whole team played much better together than we have in a long time, and when they're doing that I think they're having fun. But when you're out there just worrying about yourself and doing things like that, it's tough for anybody to have fun."

Bill Self, the former OSU player (1982-85) and ex-Cowboys assistant coach, has an overall coaching record of 12-8 against his alma mater, and he is 11-5 during his 10-year coaching career with the Jayhawks. Three of those five losses to OSU have come inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.

On Feb. 27, 2010, James Anderson scored 27 points and Keiton Page was 4-for-4 on three-point tries as the Cowboys shot 60 percent from the field to upset the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks 85-77.

On Feb. 23, 2008, point guard Byron Eaton did what he was best at, getting to the basket and drawing fouls, and then went 16-for-18 from the free-throw line while scoring a game-high 26 points in OSU's 61-60 victory over the fourth-ranked Jayhawks.

On Feb. 9, 2004, John Lucas was outstanding with 21 points and Tony Allen added 17 as No. 10 OSU defeated Kansas 80-60 during a season which would culminate with a trip to the Final Four.

Will the Cowboys add March 1, 2014, to that list?

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