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Texas Longhorns Close the Season At Oklahoma State

The Texas Longhorns head to Stillwater tonight. The game tips off shortly after 8 PM CST, and airs on ESPN2.

Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The three and a half month college basketball regular season comes to a close for the Texas Longhorns tonight, as Shaka Smart's team faces the 12-18 Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater.

It has been a miserable year for Travis Ford's squad. To be clear, expectations for the Cowboys were low to begin with, but things have gone about as badly as possible. Ford has seen his two best players -- guards Phil Forte and Jawun Evans -- wiped out by injuries. As a result, OSU is 3-14 in Big 12 play. And the hits keep coming, as Leyton Hammonds and Jeffrey Carroll both were unable to play Monday night against Iowa State.

Things are bad in Stillwater

I have previously written something of a defense of Travis Ford, Oklahoma State's down-on-his-luck coach. His track record over his career isn't all that bad:

Travis Ford took his first head coaching job at a 27 year old. He was hired by Campbellsville University, in the NAIA, which was not a particularly glamorous job. In his first season, Ford went 16-17, but in his next two years the Tigers went 28-3 and 23-11, respectively, earning their first trip to the NAIA tournament in nearly a decade.

Those three years at Campbellsville were good enough to allow Ford to earn his first D-I head coaching gig. Ford moved two hours away to Richmond, Kentucky, where he took over the Eastern Kentucky Colonels.

Taking over EKU wasn't an easy job. The Colonels at that time were the worst team in the Ohio Valley Conference, having finished dead last in the league in three of the previous four seasons. Over the next five seasons, Ford gradually improved EKU. The Colonels were still among the worst teams in the league for his first three seasons, but by the 2003-04 season were competing on even footing with their opponents.

And then in the 2004-05 season, everything came together. EKU won 22 games, the highest win total at that point in its 57 year history in Division I. The Colonels finished second in the OVC regular season, and won the conference tournament, earning their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1979.

After the season, Travis Ford took the head coaching job at UMass, a program that had struggled since John Calipari left for the NBA nine years earlier. Ford followed a pattern he had established at his previous head coaching stops. His first season was unspectacular. The Minutemen went 8-8 in the Atlantic Ten, and 13-15 overall. But the next two seasons were better, with UMass finishing in a tie for first place during regular season A-10 play, and following that season up with a third place finish in the league and a trip to the NIT championship game.

In the spring of 2008, Sean Sutton was forced out as head coach at Oklahoma State. After some initial rumors that the Cowboys would steal OSU alumnus Bill Self from Kansas (yea, right), Oklahoma State instead settled on the up-and-coming Ford.

In Travis Ford's six seasons in Stillwater, he has a 125-77 record [EDIT: it is now 155-109], with four trips to the NCAA tournament [EDIT: he has now taken OSU to the Big Dance five times]. He is already third on the all time wins list at Oklahoma State -- a fact that says more about how poorly Oklahoma State has fared when it has not been coached by Hank Iba or Eddie Sutton than it does about anything else. Note that Ford will likely need at least another ten years to catch Sutton on the all time Oklahoma State wins list, and another 25 or so to catch Iba. I am betting that neither of these things happen.

But it doesn't really matter. The Oklahoma State fan base isn't hearing any of it, and is ready to move on. When that happens, it is over. It may not be over right away, but it will end eventually. Perhaps the only holdup until now has been the fact that Ford's contract is a bit of a problem.

In September 2009, OSU announced a contract extension for its basketball coach that in effect created a 10-year contract. Good through 2019. Escalating salary. All kinds of perks. No buyout for the university, and a stiff buyout ($3 million) for Ford, should he jump to another job.

At this point 2019 doesn't seem so far away anymore. And paying Travis Ford not to coach might be worth it to Oklahoma State, because the fans have stopped showing up to games. Here are the listed attendances in 13,600-seat Gallagher-Iba over the last 5 games starting with the most recent one first: 5539, 5814, 4407, 6561, and 7148.

Replacing Ford will be interesting to watch. While Travis Ford isn't anything special as a basketball coach, he also isn't terrible. Like most coaches, he has done some things well and other things poorly. Maybe Oklahoma State can do better, but their next coach seems unlikely to come into the job with a better looking resume than the one that Ford had when he moved to Stillwater.

So what can we say about the game on Friday, beyond the fact that the arena will likely be empty

Most basketball teams struggle without their two best players, and Oklahoma State is no exception. Without Evans and Forte, Travis Ford is putting the ball in the hand of guards Jeff Newberry, a shooter who is having to take on more of the offensive burden than is ideal, and Tyree Griffin, a quick playmaker with a questionable shot. As a result, the Oklahoma State offense has problems, and struggles to score.

With so many injuries, the OSU lineup has been a mess. Carroll has been fighting a lingering stomach illness, while Hammonds missed a game Monday night with a dislocated finger. Joe Burton, Chris Olivier, Tavarius Shine, and Mitchell Solomon will likely be suiting up, and I am sure that OSU will be able to have enough guys to play with five men on the floor at all times.

But while OSU has little depth and problems scoring, the Cowboys can still be expected to play hard on defense. Olivier and Solomon are both good interior defenders, and can make things difficult for a Texas team that can struggle to finish its drives to the basket.

I generally avoid psychoanalysis -- I really don't feel good about trying to get a read on how someone feels through a television screen -- but I have to think that for the Cowboys it is at this point a real struggle just to not give up and stop trying.

I don't want you to come away from reading this with the idea that I think this game will be an easy win for Texas -- on the road no wins come easy -- but, man, it has been a difficult year for Oklahoma State.