By posting its seventh consecutive loss Monday, Oklahoma State finally “won” something tangible: the inside track in the race to be considered the nation’s most disappointing college basketball team.With an overtime loss to Baylor, a fellow contender for that title, OSU (16-10, 4-9 in Big 12) stands front and center as the former Top 10 team most likely to miss this season’s NCAA Tournament. At this point, the Cowboys cannot post a winning record in league play and will carry the school’s longest losing streak in 41 years into Saturday’s home game against Texas Tech. That represents a huge reality check for a team selected, along with Kansas, as the Big 12 co-favorites in the preseason coaches poll.But before the buzzards completely clean the Cowboys’ carcass, it is worth noting that OSU has a potential season-turning weapon at its disposal. Guard Marcus Smart, an all-American and projected NBA lottery pick, returns Saturday from his three-game suspension for pushing Tech fan/heckler Jeff Orr in the final seconds of a Feb. 8 loss in Lubbock.OSU coach Travis Ford has predicted that Smart, who leads the team in scoring (17.5 points per game) and assists (4.4), will return as an “even better” player when he gets back on the court for the Cowboys’ final five regular-season games and whatever postseason opportunity surfaces.Smart, considered one of the league’s good guys by rival coaches, sounded contrite in apologizing for crossing an uncrossable line for athletes in a live sporting event. No player, under any circumstance, can initiate intentional contact with one of the paying customers.Smart did that and paid the price. So did OSU, which went 0-3 in the games he missed. But that stretch does not have to be a death sentence for the Cowboys’ NCAA hopes if the team responds with a strong closing surge or wins the Big 12 conference tournament.Forward Kamari Murphy, the Cowboys’ leading rebounder (6.1) insists that spirits are good inside the OSU locker room despite an ongoing slide in games played with and without Smart.“We’re going through a tough stretch but we’re not down,” Murphy said. “We’re not angry. I know a lot of you would think we’re distracted. But we’ve got our spirits up. Nobody is blaming anybody.“On the court, we need guys to play out of their minds and do more than we’re currently doing. We just need to put a 40-minute game together.”Personally, I don’t expect OSU to do anything more than limp into the NIT when postseason berths are distributed. The team has suffered too many season-ending roster deletions (forward Mike Cobbins, guard Stevie Clark) and showed too much dysfunction before Smart’s suspension for me to buy into thoughts of a dramatic turnaround.But with OSU’s “Big Three” nucleus of double-digit scorers about to be reunited (Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash), along with sixth man/shooting dynamo Phil Forte (12.3 points per game), it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility. The team’s next two games, Saturday against Tech (13-12, 5-7) and Monday at TCU (9-15, 0-12), loom as potential confidence-building springboards.If Smart can energize his teammates when he returns, there is enough talent and veteran leadership for OSU to show up at the conference tournament in Kansas City (March 12-15) as the team no opposing coach will want to play. Without question, less-talented teams than this OSU bunch have earned 11th-hour berths into the NCAA field by winning league tournaments.During Monday’s Big 12 conference call, Ford said Smart has had some of his best practices of the season while working with the Cowboys’ scout team during his suspension.“His attitude has been good,” Ford said. “We’ve continued to talk to him, mentor him and counsel him during this whole situation … Marcus brings some great facets to our team. And I think he’ll be even better when he comes back.”If so, the Cowboys still can salvage a season on the brink. If not, OSU will cement its legacy as the most disappointing college basketball team of the 2013-14 season.Spotlight: Casey Prather, Florida FOn a team loaded with senior starters, no veteran has been more instrumental in helping No. 2 Florida climb into this year’s Final Four discussion than forward Casey Prather (6-foot-6, 212 pounds). Prather leads the Gators in scoring (15.7 points per game), is their most accurate shooter from the field (62.4 pct.) and ranks among their top rebounders (5.3).The Gators (23-2, 12-0 in SEC) are 9-0 since Prather returned from a two-game absence after sustaining a bruised knee in a 74-58 victory over South Carolina on Jan. 8. More important, the native of Jackson, Tenn. has been at his best in big games.He scored a team-high 24 points in Saturday’s 69-59 victory at Kentucky, helping the Gators secure a rare triumph at Rupp Arena and match the school record for consecutive wins in a season (17). In the Gators’ five contests against ranked opponents, Prather has averaged 17.8 points and 5.6 rebounds. Both figures are above his yearly averages and include a 22-point performance in a 77-75 victory over Memphis, as well as a 12-point, eight-rebound effort in a 67-61 victory over Kansas.Florida seeks to record its 18th consecutive victory Wednesday night against Auburn (12-11, 4-8). If successful, the Gators would break the school mark for consecutive wins that it shares with the 2006 and 2007 teams, both of which won NCAA titles.Storylines Cinderella watch: No. 10 Saint Louis (23-2) The Billikens, who have won a school-record 17 consecutive games, lead the Atlantic 10 at 10-0 in league play and rank 12th in the updated RPI. They feature a dynamic guard in Jordair Jett (13.2 points, 4.9 assists) and a solid inside tandem in forwards Dwayne Evans (14.8 points, 6.4 rebounds) and Rob Loe (10.0 points, 5.3 rebounds). Saint Louis’ RPI is hampered by the lack of a notable nonconference triumph but they have victories over fellow conference contenders VCU and Richmond. Texas connection: Stephen F. Austin (24-2, 13-0 in Southland) is the lone college team from the Lone Star State to win a combined 50 games the past two seasons. The Lumberjacks, 27-5 last season, missed the 2013 NCAA Tournament by losing in the finals of the Southland Conference tournament. With five scorers that average in double digits this season, led by forward Jacob Parker (15.2 ppg, 6.9 rebounds), SFA will be the overwhelming favorite to claim this year’s Southland tournament title and earn the league’s NCAA Tournament berth.Numbers game 0 Teams allowing fewer points per game than Virginia (55.6), which features the nation’s stingiest defense. 4.6 Blocked shots per game by Arizona State’s 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski, the NCAA leader. 12 Players in NCAA history with more career points than Creighton’s Doug McDermott (2,863), who passed Larry Bird with Sunday’s 39-point effort against Villanova. 21.3 Average margin of victory by No. 11 Louisville, tops in the nation. 63.9 Shooting percentage of Stony Brook forward Jameel Warney, best among Division I players.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch