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Mike Boynton Is Fighting An Uphill Battle And Crushing Expectations

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STILLWATER -

Mike Boynton Jr. may have a claim to the most impressive pair of true road wins of any first-year coach in Division I history. 

The first-year Oklahoma State coach pulled off the improbable last weekend when his Cowboys team handled then-No. 7 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. Boynton forever gets to boast that in his first game against Bill Self, he bested the Hall of Famer. Then, on Saturday, the Pokes got out of  West Virginia with an 88-85 upset win over Bob Huggins' Mountaineers. 

"We never let them get away," Boynton told CBS Sports on Saturday as he made his way back home to Stillwater, Oklahoma. "In the first half we only had five turnovers, and three of them were in the first two and a half minutes in the game. We only had two turnovers for almost an 18-minute stretch the rest of the first half. They need to to turn you over to get baskets. They're not a great half-court offensive team.

"What hurt us in the first half is we gave up too many offensive rebounds. ... They only had one offensive rebound in the second half, which is the other way they beat you. They turn you over or get second or third shots at the the rim."

Sophomore Lindy Waters leaked out to hit a broken-play 3-pointer to give Oklahoma State the lead with 17.8 seconds remaining. 

Taking down Self and Huggins in Year One? That's something special to put on the résumé. The former is in the Hall of Fame and the latter is a finalist for induction later this year. Beyond the coaches, Boynton also got the wins at feared Phog Allen and rowdy WVU Coliseum -- considered two of the three toughest venues in the Big 12 (along with Iowa State's Hilton Coliseum; Boynton gets to try for the trifecta when OSU travels to Ames, Iowa on Feb. 27).  

If Oklahoma superstar Trae Young goes on to win National Player of the Year, the 36-year-old Boynton will have a win over him, too.

"I'll take 'em," the humble 36-year-old coach said of his unanticipated victories.

At 15-10 and with a 5-7 Big 12 record, Boynton has Oklahoma State ahead of schedule. In fact, the Cowboys own five wins against likely or reasonably hopeful NCAA Tournament teams: Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida State and Texas. The overlooked Cowboys are not out of the bubble picture yet which, frankly, is good enough for that fan base at this point. Almost no one expected Oklahoma State to be on the fringe of the bubble by Valentine's Day, but here we are. 

The Pokes would ideally need to win their three remaining home games -- vs. Kansas State, Texas Tech and Kansas -- and get victories in the Big 12 tournament in order to stay in the hunt. Regardless of outcomes to be decided in the next month, there's no debate that through 25 games Boynton's done more with less. OSU's roster is one of the weakest in the league from a talent perspective. Combine that with his inexperience as a head coach and it's simple to see why plenty thought OSU was doomed for last place in the conference.

But as of Sunday it's in a four-way tie for sixth with Baylor, TCU and Texas. 

"There was no expectation for this season, or on how we could do, because everyone thought I was going to suck as a coach," Boynton said.

Blunt words but not inaccurate ones. In the industry, Boynton's hire last March came as a surprise. Prior to getting the job, Boynton was viewed as a long shot. He was an associate head coach for Brad Underwood at Stephen F. Austin, then followed Underwood to Oklahoma State after Stephen F. Austin didn't tap Boynton to take over for Underwood. Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder had the rug pulled out from under him when Underwood bolted on OSU after one season; Illinois came calling with a hefty contract, so Underwood did what he thought was best for him, his family and his career. Boynton again interviewed for a vacant job left open by his boss. This time, even to his surprise, he got picked -- beating out well-known OSU alum Doug Gottlieb. 

Many in the sport scrutinized the hire as a high-probability mistake, a decision that was made on the cheap. In short: a bad call by Holder. Boynton wasn't oblivious to this. He got through the summer, kept much of the roster intact (a critical component after Underwood left: Boynton already being on staff in 2016-17 enabled roster consistency) and prepared for transition.

Then, on Sept. 26, the FBI charged Boynton's associate head coach, Lamont Evans, with fraud and bribery. Boynton didn't bring Evans to Oklahoma State (Underwood did), but nonetheless his job was seemingly in peril before the preseason ever began in earnest. From the outside, how could that not seem like the case, right? But Boynton insisted, publicly and as soon as his bosses would allow him to speak on the record, that he was not connected to the FBI probe nor was he privy to or aware of the wrongdoings of Evans, who prior to being busted carried a very good reputation for his ability to recruit.

Boynton said his job status has never been vulnerable since the FBI story broke. Holder and Oklahoma State's power brokers have backed him in full.  

That hasn't stopped Oklahoma State from encountering a lot of other issues. 

The program suspended star Jeffrey Carroll for three games to start the season. In mid-December, Boynton kicked junior Davon Dillard and freshman Zack Dawson off the team. No first-year coach has had more thrown at him this season than Boynton. 

"The team's had to deal with a lot of things and twists, a lot of distractions with the FBI," Boynton said. "I give a lot of credit to them, and the staff. We have done our best handling the things we could control. … We've had a lot of moving parts this year, man. I think the story of this team is how they've overcome adversity and eliminated distractions outside the program."

It would've been easy, and was expected. for Oklahoma State to cave in and become a doormat in the Big 12, for Boynton to face-plant after all he was presented with. Boynton almost certainly won't win coach of the year in the Big 12 (Texas Tech's Chris Beard probably has that locked up), but few in the sport have made bigger strides, all things considered, than him. 

In college basketball, success for first-year coaches can be gauged in different ways. Oklahoma State qualifies as a success in more ways than not. Boynton's not a big name in coaching yet, but if he's doing this well despite all that was tossed at him in his first year on the job, think of what could come when the waters lose their chop. 

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