The media was gathered on the north end of Gallagher-Iba Arena. Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood had already stood in front of the cameras, microphones, and recorders, so had senior Leyton Hammonds. The anticipation now is for the Cowboys other senior Phil Forte, the shooting guard with the big three-point stroke in still on the maplewood floor going through his shooting warm-up. Forte walks along the side of the three-point arch toward the media appearing to make his way over, but then he quickly sprints back toward the middle of the arch and catches a pass and lofts another three-pointer that goes straight through the nylon netting. It is almost as if Forte is trying to delay inevitable. Eventually, he finishes his string of seven makes in a row and walks on over to talk about his final game in Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“I can’t even believe it is here and the five years that I have been at Oklahoma State have been the five best years of my life,” Forte said. “They have gone by way too fast. I don’t know how I am going to be going into that game. There will be a lot of emotions and a lot of memories going through my head. I’m going to try to be as locked in as I can be. It may come down to seeing my mom and how she handles it may depend on how I handle it. Hopefully, she keeps herself together and I should be fine.”
Forte knew the day would come. He loves Oklahoma State so much that it was almost a relief with his elbow injury last season that he could come back and do his senior season right. Last year his Senior Day would have come against Texas, but this year it is Kansas that will come to Stillwater to finish the regular season schedule. For Forte, a dream match-up.
“I think it is ironic, growing up a huge KU fan,” Forte said. “The last game that I play here at Oklahoma State is going to be the team I grew up wanting to play for, so yes, I think it is fitting. More importantly, though it is a game we want to win to boost up our seeding for the NCAA Tournament.”
“There will be some extra feelings, but these guys and the one thing I am so proud of with these two guys (Forte and Hammonds( is they’ve played for the name on the front (of the jersey),” Underwood said of his two seniors.
In his Oklahoma State career, Forte has experienced four wins over Kansas, including the 85-80 win in Lawrence. Oklahoma State has had more success against Kansas recently than anyone in the conference. Forte enjoys that fact. This time it is just a little bit more important. Kansas has clinched a 13th straight Big 12 Conference championship and the top seed in the Big 12 Tournament next week in the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The Cowboys are locked in for the fifth seed and they are locked in for an NCAA Tournament berth. What is not locked in is where the two teams will be seeded in the NCAA.
Currently ranked number one in the polls, Kansas would like to stay there and convince the NCAA Committee that they should be the number one overall seed in March Madness. Oklahoma State is currently sitting on an eight line or a seven line in the latest bracketology. That leads to a second round game with a one or a two seed and a tough path to the “Sweet 16.” A win over Kansas likely gets you on a five or six line and a better opportunity to get to the second week of the NCAA.
High stakes, and remember, because of the Big 12 seeding already clinched, if the Cowboys and Jayhawks win their first games in KC, they have a Friday night date at six for a semifinal game.
“We’re trying to get our seed a little higher and they are, obviously, trying to get the number one seed, so there is still stuff to play for, both teams have a lot of pride,” Forte added. “I expect nothing less than any other Oklahoma State-KU game, very physical and very intense.”
“There is a reason they are number one in the country,” Underwood said of the Jayhawks. “You can’t get tied into one guy. They arguably going to have the league MVP (Frank Mason III) and they are arguably going to have one of the top three picks in the (NBA) draft (Josh Jackson). Its’ a team that is a lot more than that and we have to be sound in literally every possession.
The house will be packed. There will, no doubt, be plenty of drama, because these two teams have proven during their seasons with comebacks and close wins decided at the end, they are the most resilient teams in the Big 12 this season.
“I think that those are two real positive traits, we may not as coaches like the fact that we have gone down and come back,” Underwood said of both the gritty teams. “Kansas is a team that can flip the swithch.”
The first of two possible meetings between these old rivals tips at five p.m. Saturday night and you need the number of your favorite scalper to get in, if you don’t already have your tickets in hand.