STILLWATER — Oklahoma State had just been to the Final Four and a Sweet 16 when Byron Eaton came to campus in one of the most ballyhooed recruiting classes in school history.
Three straight years without reaching NCAA tournament wasn’t at all what he had in mind for his college career.
“We had a great recruiting class, they had been to the Final Four two years before that and then to the Sweet 16. When I came here, I’d seen all these banners that said NCAA,” Eaton said.
“Any kid’s dream when they’re getting ready to sign, you want to go to a place where they have success in the tournament. That’s one of the main reasons why I signed here.”
In his last chance, Eaton finally will get to play in the NCAA tournament when the Cowboys (22-11) face ninth-seeded Tennessee (21-12) in the first round Friday in Dayton, Ohio. It’s the culmination of a career in which he’s played for three coaches and seen the majority of his recruiting class disintegrate as Oklahoma State’s program took a brief step backward.
Before Eaton’s arrival, the Cowboys had been to the Final Four in 2003 and seemed to be on such solid ground that Sean Sutton, the son of longtime coach Eddie Sutton, was installed as the head coach in waiting.
He was to take over whenever his father decided to retire.
That process was sped up when Eddie Sutton was involved in a drunk-driving crash in February 2006, and he never returned to lead the Cowboys after taking a leave of absence. Sean Sutton finished out that season and guided Oklahoma State for the next two, resulting in a string of three straight first-round NIT losses before he resigned under pressure.
Travis Ford was hired away from Massachusetts to replace him, and the Cowboys rallied with a six-game winning streak toward the end of the regular season and then removed any doubt that they’d make the NCAAs by upsetting No. 6 Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament.
“These guys have been through a lot since they’ve been here,” Ford said. “A lot’s been said about them, this and that, and I heard all the things when I took this job about how they hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve reminded them of that more than once, and it’s great to see these guys see their work paid off.”
Aside from all the drama involving the Suttons, Eaton has been the focal point for the Cowboys. His weight, which fluctuated by dozens of pounds because of poor eating habits, became a regular topic of conversation and was often blamed when he played poorly.
But when he’s at the top of his game, Eaton has showed he can be one of the country’s most dynamic players. He guided Oklahoma State to an upset of Kansas last season that was the Jayhawks’ final loss before their national championship run, and there’s no doubt who’ll have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line late for the Cowboys.
His main frustration has been missing the NCAA tournament
“My first year when I wasn’t able to do it, people were like, ‘Y’all are young.’ And then the second year, they were like, ‘You almost had it.’ And then last year, it was, ‘I guess y’all can’t do it.’ To do it this year, it’s definitely a relief for me to go out making the tournament my last year,” Eaton said.
“But just making it is half the battle. Now, you’ve got to go in and try to get some wins in the tournament and see where that can lead you to.”
The fact that Eaton is even still on the team bucks a remarkable trend of attrition in the program. Of the nine players recruited to Oklahoma State four years ago, only three made it to the end of their college careers in Stillwater. Mario Boggan played two full seasons after transferring out of junior college, and Eaton and guard Terrel Harris were the only two of six high-school recruits to get to their senior seasons in Stillwater.
Gerald Green bolted for the NBA out of high school and Keith Brumbaugh, who considered making the same jump, never got to play after an issue with his ACT score. Roderick Flemings was kicked off the team late in his freshman year and junior-college transfers Torre Johnson and Jamaal Brown were dismissed after one season. Finally, Kenny Cooper decided to transfer after his sophomore season.
Looking back on all that’s happened, Eaton sees Oklahoma State reaching the pinnacle as his career draws to a close.
“It’s definitely at the top,” Eaton said. “I’m just happy to be able to play some more basketball where I want to play it and not where I didn’t want to play it. The first three years, I didn’t want to play in the NIT.”
Now, he and Harris will finally get to play in the tournament they had envisioned when they came to Oklahoma State in the first place.
“Better late than never, man,” Harris said. “That’s all I can say about that.”