In the end, it all came down to the number one.
That’s how many NCAA tournament games Travis Ford won in nine seasons at Oklahoma State.
That’s how many league games Brad Underwood lost in three years at Stephen F. Austin.
Granted, winning a tournament game isn’t quite so easy as racking up the victories in the Southland Conference, but at a place that values success as Oklahoma State does, just one win can get you fired ... and only one loss makes you an awfully attractive hire. Which is exactly how it went for the Cowboys, athletic director Mike Holder opting to part ways with Ford and bring in Underwood, arguably the hottest mid-major coach in the country.
In three seasons with the Lumberjacks, Underwood finished 89-14, tying the record for the most wins by a Division I coach in his first three seasons. The other guy in that category? One Brad Stevens. That’s some good company.
And, as an underdog, Underwood still managed to win twice as many games in the NCAA tournament as Ford, upending VCU in 2014 and upsetting West Virginia this year.
So that’s why Underwood is at Oklahoma State.
Now for the matter of the job at hand.
It’s a big one.
The Cowboys struggled to defend all season, allowing 79 points per game, and by the end of the season they couldn’t score. In their final 11 games -- 10 of which were losses -- they averaged 58 points per game. That explains the 12-20 record and the mere three Big 12 wins, but doesn’t necessarily explain what was going on with the team.
Already without Phil Forte (elbow), Oklahoma State lost freshman point guard, and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Jawun Evans during that span to a shoulder injury, robbing OSU of its two leading scorers. Just last month, Forte finally went through his first full workout without restrictions. Evans is still rehabbing.
That has allowed Underwood and his assistants -- former Frank Martin assistant Lamont Evans, one-time legendary Texas high school coach and ex-Boise State assistant Danny Henderson, and Mike Boynton, Underwood’s assistant at Stephen F. Austin -- to concentrate largely on the Cowboys' future roster.
The lone addition they hope to make -- 6-foot-11 center Omer Yurtseven. The Turkish big man averaged 9.8 points and 8.7 rebounds at the European Under-18 Championships last summer and surprised his club team by saying he would prefer to pursue a college career. Already on a number of schools' radars, Yurtseven is being mentored by Enes Kanter, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Cowboys' staff is hoping Kanter’s proximity will help their pitch.
With our without the big man, Underwood’s biggest challenge will be getting this team to play his way.
That, of course, is not unlike the difficulties for any new coach, but at Oklahoma State how Underwood would like to play and how the Cowboys have been playing are on different ends of the spectrum.
Where Oklahoma State ranked 114th in scoring defense last season, the Lumberjacks finished 24th, allowing just 66 points per game. Stephen F. Austin was a pesky, menace of a D, forcing a nation-best 18.6 turnovers per game. The Cowboys, by comparison, coughed the ball up 12.6 times, and forced just 11.5 turnovers per game.
It would be unreasonable to expect the Cowboys to completely come around overnight. Old habits die hard and new ones take time, but with a veteran roster opting to commit to Underwood rather than bolt, all signs are that the old OSU players are willing to learn some new tricks.
Forte and Hammonds both will graduate this spring, which could have made them valuable commodities on the open graduate transfer market. That they stayed speaks volumes to their intentions at Oklahoma State.
"Before I leave here, I want to not only say I won an NCAA tournament game, but we made a run," Forte said at Underwood’s initial news conference.
That’s the power of one.