When you think of the best games in college basketball, you think of the greatest rivalries in the sport—Duke vs. UNC, Cincinnati vs. Xavier, Michigan vs. Michigan State. There’s something about the marriage of tradition, atmosphere, and mutual hatred that consistently produces high quality basketball games. But there’s one matchup in college basketball that sits in the shadows, quietly producing some of the most exciting games in the sport on a yearly basis.
Welcome to the Big 12’s best-kept secret: Iowa State vs. Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys are the Cyclones’ most closely-contested longtime conference foe, with the series favoring Oklahoma State 69-67. And that’s not where the drama ends—the teams have played 14 overtime games and 19 of the last 25 meetings have been decided by single digits. And while neither fan base would go as far to call the game a true rivalry, the schools seem to treat it as such:
So I thought to myself, I should rank the best ISU-OSU games of the past decade. As I started my research, I was flat-out overwhelmed—with five overtime games and seemingly unlimited single-digit games since 2010, I didn’t even know where to start. So I did what I always do when I’m in doubt—go to the analytics! Ken Pomeroy, to be specific. Some of you will roll your eyes, but there’s simply no one who provides more in-depth and diverse data points for each game for such a cheap subscription than kenpom.com.
So instead of making this list about my opinion, we’re using KenPom’s “Excitement” metric, which he describes as “a measure of how much the win probability changed over the course of a game using a win probability algorithm that assumes the teams are of equal strength.” While this metric can’t determine the importance of the game to either team or know the specific factors that contribute to the intensity of each game, it does a pretty good job of knowing which games are just flat-out good. So I compiled a list of the top-10 most exciting Iowa State-Oklahoma State games since 2010, as determined by KenPom. Let me know what you think about this list and if you agree or disagree with the analytics.
10. #24 Iowa State 86, Oklahoma State 83
Ames, IA | February 28, 2017
This is a game that never should have been as close as it was, but the Cyclones always seem to find a way to make it dramatic. On senior night for Monte Morris, Matt Thomas, Naz Mitrou-Long, and Deonte Burton, the Cyclones (20-9, 12-5 Big 12) led by four with 21 seconds to play thanks to two Burton free throws, but Juwan Evans was fouled shooting a 3-pointer on the next possession, draining all three free throws and making it a one-point game down the stretch. The Cowboys (20-10, 9-8 Big 12) wouldn’t get their game-tying three-pointer off in time and the Cyclones survived senior night.
9. #14 Iowa State 70, #22 Oklahoma State 65
Stillwater, OK | February 18, 2015
With 12 lead changes throughout the game, this was destined to be a classic game. Trailing 65-61 with less than two and a half minutes remaining, the Cyclones (19-6, 9-4 Big 12) turned on the jets and blew by the Cowboys (19-9, 7-7 Big 12) with a 9-0 run to end the game. Jameel McKay had one of the best performances in the series, making 13 free throws and pulling down nine offensive rebounds in a 17-point, 14-rebound, 4-block effort.
8. Oklahoma State 72, Iowa State 71
Kansas City, MO | March 11, 2020
As I said, KenPom’s excitement metric can’t determine the importance of these individual games, and this game between two teams out of NCAA Tournament contention (Iowa State 12-20, 5-13 Big 12 and Oklahoma State 18-14, 7-11 Big 12) certainly wouldn’t make most people’s lists. But you may be drawing a blank on this game because you were distracted by something else—the entire world shutting down. This was one of the final sporting events before COVID-19 put basketball (and everything else) on pause, but what a game to go out on. The game stayed within three points for the final seven minutes of the game, and Terrence Lewis’ lay-in with 8.9 seconds to take a 70-69 lead felt like the final blow of a back-and-forth affair. That was until Isaak Likekele blew by every Iowa State defender to lay in the game-winning shot with 3.8 seconds left.
7. Oklahoma State 96, Iowa State 87 OT
Stillwater, OK | January 19, 2011
Down 74-65 with only three minutes to play, Oklahoma State (14-4, 2-2 Big 12) looked dead in the water on their home court. But the Cyclones (14-5, 1-3 Big 12) couldn’t get the ball in the basket as the Cowboys surged. With under a minute to play, J.P. Olukemi stole a pass, got fouled on a made layup, and made the and-1 free throw to pull within one point. After a pair of Bubu Palo free throws, Keiton Page made a 3-point jumper to force overtime, where the Cowboys were able to pull away for the win, led by Olukemi’s 29 points.
6. Oklahoma State 69, Iowa State 67
Stillwater, OK | February 7, 2012
The 2012 season featured two thrillers between these teams, with the first matchup being decided by a banked-in buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Scott Christopherson. However, KenPom favored the back-and-forth contest in Stillwater, where the Cowboys (12-12, 5-6 Big 12) won on a fadeaway jumper from Le’Bryan Nash with 4.7 seconds to play. The Cyclones (17-7, 7-4 Big 12) had one more opportunity, with Chris Allen’s last-second shot being blocked to give Oklahoma State the win.
5. Oklahoma State 96, Iowa State 87 OT
Stillwater, OK | January 6, 2018
While neither Iowa State (9-5, 0-3 Big 12) nor Oklahoma State (11-4, 1-2 Big 12) had high expectations coming into this season, the game delivered on thrills. The Cowboys jumped out to a 28-14 lead with under seven minutes to play in the first half, but the Cyclones came storming back, taking a 34-32 lead into halftime. The rest of the game was a back-and-forth battle, with Donovan Jackson scoring 30 points and leading the Cyclones to a 76-68 lead with under four minutes to play. But the Cowboys made a run of their own, with Kendall Smith hitting a game-tying jumper with five seconds in regulation to force overtime, 79-79. The Cyclones would lead 85-84 with less than two minutes remaining in OT, but the Cowboys pulled away at the free throw line to break a 10-game losing streak in the series.
4. Oklahoma State 78, Iowa State 76
Stillwater, OK | January 30, 2013
In one of the more controversial games of this list, Oklahoma State (14-5, 4-3 Big 12) was able to survive a scare from Iowa State (14-6, 4-3 Big 12) as Marcus Smart banked in a game-winning floater with 3.1 seconds remaining. Iowa State would immediately turn the ball over to give the ball back to Oklahoma State, but Chris Babb was fouled by Le’Bryan Nash on Oklahoma State’s in-bounds play, leading to confusion about whether Babb would shoot free throws to potentially tie the game. The refs huddled and determined the Cyclones would get the ball out of bounds with under 2 seconds remaining, where Tyrus McGee’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer bounced off the front of the rim to give the Cowboys the win.
3. #16 Iowa State 85, Oklahoma State 81 OT
Ames, IA | March 8, 2014
Down 71-68 with just five seconds remaining, the Cowboys’ win probability was 95.3% as Phil Forte was set to ice the game away for Oklahoma State (20-11, 8-10 Big 12) by making his second free throw attempt. But the ball clanked off the rim, Deandre Kane pushed the ball ahead to Naz Long, and he fired a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. The Cyclones (23-7, 11-7 Big 12) would survive with Big 12 Player of the Year, Melvin Ejim, fouled out of the game while Deandre Kane scored 27 points on senior night to seal one of the most iconic wins in Hilton Coliseum history.
2. #23 Iowa State 84, Oklahoma State 81 OT
Stillwater, OK | January 26, 2022
There are nail-biters, then there is this game. 28 lead changes. 15 ties. Neither team led by more than four points the entire game. No big scoring runs, just back-and-forth the entirety of the game. The Cyclones (15-5, 3-5 Big 12) forced a turnover tied at 70 with five seconds to play, but immediately turned the ball back over to the Cowboys (10-9, 3-5 Big 12), who would miss a 3-pointer at the buzzer to take the game to overtime. In overtime, down by one with less than 20 seconds to play, Oklahoma State forced a turnover, only to give the ball back to Iowa State, where they would hit two free throws to give them an 84-81 lead. Oklahoma State had two opportunities from three in the final seconds, missing both to give Iowa State the tense win.
1. #16 Iowa State 98, #19 Oklahoma State 97 3OT
Stillwater, OK | February 3, 2014
Some games just can’t be summarized in words. The highlights show just how truly crazy this game was, but the other details—a 25-year home winning streak broken, Eddie Sutton honored at halftime, a put-back dunk by Melvin Ejim juuuuuuuust after the buzzer that would have ended the game in regulation, a Naz Long 3-pointer to force a third overtime—really vaults this game to the top of a list that KenPom already determined was bonkers on paper. I’m not sure I’ll ever see a game quite as exciting in my lifetime, nor am I sure my heart could take it.