Notebook: Cowboys must rustle up strong finish

Oklahoma State's Sean Einhaus during Round 2 of the 2010 NCAA Championship.

Oklahoma State's Sean Einhaus during Round 2 of the 2010 NCAA Championship.

Men's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Joey GarberGeorgia  68.61 
2Robby SheltonAlabama  68.62 
3Patrick RodgersStanford  68.67 
4Ollie SchniederjansGA Tech  68.81 
5Cameron WilsonStanford  69.05 

Men's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Alabama 68.92 
2Georgia 69.62 
3Georgia Tech 69.62 
4Oklahoma State 69.72  10 
5California 69.81  11 

Talk about being in uncharted waters. That’s exactly where coach Mike McGraw and the Oklahoma State men’s golf team are.

In their long and successful history, I’m pretty sure the Cowboys never have been at this juncture of the season facing the possibility of not competing in the NCAA postseason.

After all, Oklahoma State carries the most impressive streak – at any level and in any sport – when it comes to most consecutive NCAA Championships. That’s 65 in a row, beginning with the inception of the Cowboys’ golf program in 1947. No other program is even close.

That streak, however, is in jeopardy.

A look at the latest Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings makes one question how that could be, since the Cowboys are No. 26 – and a total of 81 teams will participate in the six NCAA regional championships in mid-May.

A look ahead . . .

What: Gary Koch Invitational

When: Saturday-Sunday, April 7-8

Where: Old Memorial Golf Club, Tampa, Fla.

Why it’s important: Something has to give, as No. 2 Alabama and No. 24 Florida State each will be looking for its third consecutive victory, as will Florida State senior Brooks Koepka as an individual. Other top-25 teams in the field: No. 3 Auburn, No. 10 Georgia Tech, No. 15 North Florida, No. 22 Virginia and No. 23 Florida. Virginia is the defending champion.

• • •

What: ASU Thunderbird Invitational

When: Friday-Saturday, April 6-7

Where: ASU’s Karsten Golf Course, Tempe, Ariz.

Why it’s important: If host Arizona State is going to make the postseason in coach Tim Mickelson’s first year, now’s the time to do it. The Sun Devils are ranked No. 74 by Golfweek and have a 43-66-1 record, with a .500 mark required for an NCAA regional berth. A home-course victory against this 17-team field would go a long way (although high finishes at the Wyoming Cowboy Classic and Pac-12 Championship also will be required). But a victory in Tempe won’t be easy, with five top-20 teams competing: No. 6 Cal, No. 9 Washington, No. 11 UNLV, No. 13 San Diego State and No. 19 New Mexico.

They should be a shoo-in, right?

Well, except for the fact that there’s now this thing called the .500 rule in NCAA Division I. Simply put, in order to be eligible for an at-large invitation into the NCAA postseason, a team must have at least a .500 won-lost record against Division I programs.

That little requirement places the Cowboys (55-53-3) squarely on the bubble.

More importantly, there’s only two tournaments left on their schedule that will figure into the final numbers. And there will be some strong competition in both.

Next up for the Cowboys is the Aggie Invitational, to be held April 21-22 at Texas A&M’s Traditions Golf Club, followed by the Big 12 Conference Championship on April 27-29 at Whispering Pines Golf Club in Trinity, Texas.

Of course, if Oklahoma State were to win its sixth consecutive Big 12 title – and 55th conference crown overall – it would earn an automatic berth into NCAA postseason – regardless of its record.

That, however, will be a tall order to fill this time around. At best, the Cowboys likely will be the conference tournament’s No. 3 seed behind No. 1-ranked Texas and No. 14 Texas A&M. Also on hand will be No. 28 Baylor, No. 31 Oklahoma and No. 44 Texas Tech.

Bottom line is, Oklahoma State is going to have to finish these last two starts in the top 5 or 6. In years past, that would be all but a given. But this season, the Cowboys have only two top-5 showings – their first two starts of the fall – and this spring have three ninth places, a 10th and a seventh.

When senior Peter Uihlein turned professionalat mid-season, it marked a trifecta loss of first-team All-Americans for McGraw. Kevin Tway was a given, being the lone senior on a Cowboys team that finished last season ranked No. 1. Shortly after the season, fellow first-teamer Morgan Hoffmann announced he would skip his senior campaign to turn pro.

Then, the unexpected happened: Uihlein – the 2010 U.S. Amateur champion, a two-time first-team All-American, two-time U.S. Walker Cup member and 2011 Big 12 Player of the Year and Ben Hogan Award winner – joined Tway and Hoffmann in the play-for-pay ranks.

“When you lose three first-team All-Americans, you know you are not going to take a team to where it was before,” McGraw said. “It’s been rough, a real struggle. We’ve had to count scores this spring we’ve never had to count before. Yes, it’s been frustrating, but I’m the eternal optimist, and I still believe it’s going to get better, (that) we’re going to get better.”

When Uihlein left and with the .500 rule dangling out there, McGraw could have done some scrambling, maybe dropping a spring tournament with a strong field and adding one with a weaker lineup. It has been done by other on-the-bubble programs in recent years, and let’s face it, any smaller tournament would welcome with open arms a program such as Oklahoma State.

For the Cowboys, though, it was not going to happen – not under McGraw’s watch.

“We want to play against the best competition there is,” McGraw has said. “I don’t think I’ll ever change that. The way I look at it, if we don’t finish above .500 and don’t make it (to the postseason), we probably don’t deserve to be there. It would mean we simply didn’t play well enough.”

Still, consider this: According to the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, Oklahoma State’s strength of schedule this season is No. 1. McGraw, like his predecessor Mike Holder, believes in playing the best because the ultimate goal at Oklahoma State is to be the best.

Now it’s crunch time for the Cowboys. Time to make their way through these uncharted waters, dig down deep and get the job done.

Here’s one fellow who expects them to extend the streak. It’s hard to imagine an NCAA postseason without the orange-and-black-clad boys from Stillwater.

• • •

CUTTING IT CLOSE: Speaking of the .500 rule, Golfweek’s rankings show only six teams among the top 90 that are under the mark as of this past weekend: No. 57 Mississippi (51-53-2), No. 64 Notre Dame (40-45-1), No. 74 Arizona State (43-66-1), No. 81 Vanderbilt (44-57), No. 86 South Alabama (39-59-3) and No. 87 Mercer (53-64-3). On the bubble with Oklahoma State are No. 54 Lamar (56-54-2), No. 68 Ohio State (45-45-1), No. 77 Coastal Carolina (68-66-3) and No. 88 College of Charleston (60-60).

Ohio State, which entered this week’s Wildcat Invitational hosted by Villanova right at the break-even point, got a much-needed victory there to take the Buckeyes’ mark comfortably above .500.

• • •

FAB FROG FROSH: With his victory at Augusta State’s Insperity tournament earlier this week, not only did TCU freshman Julian Brun earn Golfweek’s Player of the Week honor, he also continued his assault on the Horned Frogs’ history books. For the Frenchman, it was this third victory of the season and came against a field that included nine of the nation’s top 50 individual players.

Brun is now 3-for-3 this season when holding the lead entering the final round, adding to his previous wins at the Turning Stone Tiger Invitational in September and the John Hayt Collegiate in February.

Before Brun, only four TCU players had won two tournaments in a single season – Jeff Hiemenz (1981-82), Jim Sorenson (1985-86), J.J. Henry (1997-98) and David Schultz (2002-03). Bret Guetz was the only other Frog with two career victories (2000-01 and 2001-02).

In addition, Brun’s current 70.87 stroke average is on pace to better Henry’s program-record mark of 71.08, set in 1997-98 when he was the Golfweek/TaylorMade National Co-Player of the Year (along with Georgia Tech’s Bryce Molder). Brun has finished in the top 20 in nine of his 10 starts this season, placing fifth or better five times.

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