Brown: Oklahoma State's vital leader

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In a game it couldn’t afford to lose, Oklahoma State waded through the same funk that confounded Texas Tech in the first matchup of the Big 12 tournament at the Sprint Center.

Then Markel Brown decided that he’d had enough of the nonsense. He could see the Cowboys needed help as their rushed attack matched Texas Tech’s vacant offense in the early stages of the sloppy game.

“Set up! Set up!” Brown yelled as Oklahoma State nearly tarnished another possession.

And that’s exactly what the Cowboys did. They relaxed and recovered. They moved the ball. They swarmed. They ran their stuff. Soon after, they erupted and closed the first half on a 34-11 run.

Brown hit 3-pointers. He made defensive stops. He pounded the rim on a reverse dunk that would make Dominique Wilkins blush.

That was the maneuver that will replay on “SportsCenter” and YouTube.

“They threw a punch and we have to throw one back and keep fighting, and that's what we did,” said Brown, who scored 18 of his game-high 20 points in the first half of Oklahoma State’s 80-62 win over Texas Tech.

Oklahoma State, which will face top-seeded Kansas on Thursday, is in a solid position to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament largely because Marcus Smart has played like a lottery pick since his return from suspension. He scored 21 points in a March 1 win over Kansas. He had 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals in a victory against Kansas State two days later, then had 18 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 steals and a block on Wednesday night.

Only one team has ever secured an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament after enduring a seven-game losing streak -- Iowa State in 1987-88 -- per Elias Sports Bureau. Oklahoma State could become the second.

Smart’s contributions factor into that potential history, but Brown’s leadership matters, too. Maybe more.

“You know, it was tremendous on his part, especially everything that this team has been going through,” Smart said. “You know, we needed that type of leadership, him being the senior captain on this team. He stood up and took responsibility when we needed it. It not only helped him but helped his team in a variety of ways. We're playing better basketball and part of it is because of him.”

This Oklahoma State train could have -- check that, should have -- derailed weeks ago.

Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending foot injury in late January. Stevie Clark was dismissed a few weeks after that. Smart then shoved a fan and was suspended three games. A waterfall of losses followed.

And yet, the Cowboys remain in the NCAA tournament picture despite circumstances that have flattened many programs in the past.

The young men in the locker room will tell you that Brown’s tenacity and guidance were most encouraging as they stumbled toward the bottom of the Big 12.

“He was just playing hard as he can, trying to get a ‘W’ for us,” junior forward Le'Bryan Nash said. “And that’s what you learn from guys like that. I learn a lot from him. ... He wants to win so bad."

The significance of Brown’s place as the team’s sole senior was evident before the season even started. During the first pickup game the freshmen played against the team’s veterans, Brown warned the incoming players that the Big 12 would test them. He wanted them to know that the competition level had changed and they wouldn’t excel with the ease they enjoyed in high school.

And just as quickly as he startled them, he talked to them about their potential. He pulled Leyton Hammonds aside and reminded him that he’d come to Stillwater because he was capable of competing in the league.

It was a simple reassurance that shifted Hammonds’ outlook.

“He came up to me personally and was like ‘Look dude, you know what you can do, just play,’” Hammonds said. “He knows basketball and he’s a great teammate. For him to come up to me and say that, as a freshman, I was like, ‘This dude is the leader of the team because he came out of his way just to tell me that.’”

Those are the moments that don’t crack the nightly highlights.

But Brown does that, too.

He’s not just some glue guy. He’s an athletic wing who has adjusted to various roles, including starting point guard during Smart’s three-game suspension, and has stabilized the program on both ends of the court. He can frustrate you with his range. He can hurt you with jump shots in traffic. He can embarrass you with dunks that you see but can’t stop.

Of players used on 20 percent of their team’s possessions or more, Brown is second in the Big 12 with a 118.8 offensive rating, per ESPN Insider Ken Pomeroy. He boasts career highs in points per game (17.2), 3-point shooting (38 percent) and free throw success rate (78 percent).

“I think Markel Brown is one of the premier players in the country,” coach Travis Ford said. “What he does for our basketball team, we asked him to play three different positions. He played point guard probably 15 minutes of the game tonight. Obviously when Marcus was out, he played point guard for every game.”

Oklahoma State’s recovery is a rare story. But a win over Texas Tech won’t impress the selection committee or elevate its seed.

A victory against Kansas on Thursday, however, would. That’s the next step for a program that continues to battle and make the college basketball world forget about a slide that nearly ruined its aspirations.

Brown refused to let that happen.

“I think stepping up was crucial for me, because I've been in those situations before with this ballclub,” Brown said. “I've been in some tough situations, and I was able to fight out of it. So being there, to help them, cheer them on, to let them know that we can fight another day was huge for me because of the knowledge I have.”