Column: Grueling season reveals Cowboys’ authenticity, grit

Mike Bonyton

Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton addresses OSU fans. Boynton and his Cowboys' 12-20 season ended with a Big 12 Tournament loss to TCU.

Mike Boynton and his players could have reacted differently.

They could have stormed into news conferences and given curt, vague answers. They could have made excuses. They could have tried to shut out reporters and prevent the flurry of questions that surrounded them after every game or during every midweek interview.

Throughout the season, they didn’t.

The Oklahoma State men’s basketball team’s whirlwind season ended Wednesday night when TCU squeaked past the Cowboys 73-70. It was a fitting conclusion: OSU showed tenacity but didn’t win.

The Cowboys stormed back from a 53-32 deficit. Lindy Waters III, a junior captain, made two free throws to give OSU a 70-68 lead with 25 seconds left, but Desmond Bane’s 3-pointer and Alex Robinson’s foul shots erased the Cowboys’ advantage.

It is tempting to use the cliché comparison between this season and a roller coaster, but it might be more like a ride on the spinning teacups at Walt Disney World. The Cowboys (12-20 overall, 5-13 Big 12) couldn’t prepare themselves for the wild experience, and they couldn’t stop spinning until it was done. With a dwindling roster and worn-down players, they couldn’t quit competing. They didn’t quit competing.

Through the struggles, Boynton didn’t sugarcoat anything when he addressed reporters. He arrived at a news conference Jan. 16 and joked with them, sarcastically asking if they wanted to discuss Iowa State first, and then willingly answered every question. He was immersed in an unavoidable, unexpected situation.

Boynton had dismissed Michael Weathers, Maurice Calloo and Kentrevious Jones for rule violations. They were charged with nine counts of malicious injury to property March 6 and face accusations of shooting vehicles and property with air rifles Jan. 1.

Mike Cunningham, a graduate transfer guard, had already left the team. The dismissals left the Cowboys with eight available scholarship players until former walk-on Trey Reeves broke his right foot.

Jan. 17 was Boynton’s birthday, when he held open walk-on tryouts to bolster OSU’s roster. The players who remained had to figure out how to make it through a tough Big 12 season and found motivation in the motto, “Just us.”

Player dismissals. Adversity. Losses. Eight straight Big 12 losses. Walk-on practice squad.

The words repeatedly appeared in newspaper stories about the Cowboys, who heard them constantly.

It’s a sports reporter’s job to tell the story of a team’s season, which inevitably included challenges because of the player dismissals and the longest conference losing streak.

Sometimes, it's tough to imagine what it would be like to sit on the other side of the table, where players such as Lindy Waters III, Cameron McGriff and Thomas Dziagwa often sat in a news conference.

Any college student faces challenges. Balancing responsibilities, adjusting to life away from family and managing stress aren’t easy.  

Along with the everyday struggles of typical students, or even typical student-athletes, the Cowboys had pressure weighing on them like a monster truck. They watched four teammates leave. They had to deal with constant defeat despite giving tremendous effort, maintaining conditioning routines, monitoring nutrition and growing closer every day.

And they had to hear the repeated questions from reporters about defeat. About the losing streak. About adversity.

It would have been difficult to keep from getting emotionally rattled, but they remained even-keeled.

Boynton always set the example for them. He showed them grit. He read books about leadership and never stopped learning how to become a better coach. He stayed on the recruiting trail. He cordially talked to reporters.

His players mirrored those behaviors, always answering the tough questions and never showing signs of giving up.

The future of Cowboy basketball is promising. Boynton has assembled a standout recruiting class for next year, and freshmen such as Anei and Likekele have solidified important roles.

Despite wondering what lies ahead, this year isn't one to overlook.

It wasn’t a season of glory, an NCAA Tournament appearance or a winning record, but it mattered as much or perhaps more than if it had been.