Big 12 Summer Update: Oklahoma State CowboysPosted by dnspewak on August 7th, 2012
In an effort to remind you that college basketball does in fact exist during the summer, Big 12 microsite writer Danny Spewak (@dspewak) will roll out three summer updates per week during the next month. The goal is to compile every bit of news and information from the summer months for each team and package it into neat, easy-to-read capsules for your convenience. The final team on the list — Oklahoma State.
2011-12 record: 15-18, 7-11 (7th place, Big 12)
While his peers in the coaching community were chasing recruits this summer and lounging by the pool, Travis Ford took the stand during a rape trial to testify on behalf of a former player. This wasn’t about basketball anymore. This was about the life of Darrell Williams, facing a prison sentence after two women at a party accused him of groping them in 2010. The soaring expectations in 2012-13, thanks to the arrival of freshman star Marcus Smart and the return of sophomore Le’Bryan Nash, would have to wait. Ford argued for Williams’ innocence on the stand, and several former teammates attended the trial. The defense argued that the two women may have misidentified Williams, but that didn’t convince a jury. It convicted the forward on two counts, sending him into an uncontrollable sob as police escorted him out. Williams was never a star, and he had not played since February 2011. Still, this is not your average legal situation. That kind of thing happens all the time — like this weekend, when police arrested Cowboys’ center Philip Jurick for marijuana possession. In those situations, programs discipline, suspend and move on. When a former player heads to prison on a rape conviction, though, it takes a little while to recover. So that’s where Travis Ford sits with this Oklahoma State program right now. After a traumatic whirlwind of a summer, he must now find a way to recover from the graduation of heart-and-soul guard Keiton Page and transform this collection of individually talented parts into a winning team. It’d be nice, too, if he could find a viable point guard.
Summer Orientation: Everybody knows Marcus Smart. Just ask Billy Donovan and Mark Few about the OSU freshman, who wowed them at the U-18 Championships this summer. ”He was our leader from the moment the players introduced themselves,” Few told CBS’ Gary Parrish. “He’s one of the best kids I’ve ever been around — and that includes all the Zags I’ve coached.” That single quote from Few sums up Marcus Smart at the most basic level. He may be a McDonald’s All-American with NBA talent, and he may be a scoring guard with ungodly physical gifts and slashing ability. That’s all great, but it’s not even what Smart is known for. He’s known as a leader. Clutch. A playmaker. The kind of guy who prides himself on his instincts, defensive prowess, smarts and basketball savvy rather than his point-per-game average. These are the qualities that have Travis Ford gushing about his freshman, to the point where he’s already anointing Smart as a team leader after he excelled in individual workouts this summer. Perhaps we’re reading too much into the Rivals.com star rankings and the spectacular performance at the U-18 games, and maybe all of this talk of early leadership and the “ultimate teammate” is overkill for a guy who hasn’t stepped on the court yet. The beauty of the situation for Smart and the Cowboys, though, is that he’s not necessarily counted on to carry this team. Le’Bryan Nash often had those expectations as a freshman a year ago, but his decision to return for his sophomore year means the two highly-touted talents can feed off each other.
Smart’s commitment to Oklahoma State carries another perk, too. He brought along high school teammate Phil Forte, who earned a reputation in Flower Mound, Texas, as one of the nation’s top high school shooters. There’s no way this undersized, 5’11” shooting guard could get a shot off at the college level, though, right? Hard to say. All we know at this point is the kid can shoot the heck out of the ball, evidenced by winning a three-point shooting contest at the Final Four in New Orleans this March.
The Flower Mound boys may get all the headlines this summer, but freshman forward Kamari Murphy is a versatile, 6’9” forward who adds a big body to a program seemingly always in need of size. Ford’s frontcourts have been thin in Stillwater, but Murphy can defend a lot of positions and likes to run the floor, which means he’ll have no problem adjusting to a coach who loves to get out and run. The wild card of this four-man recruiting class is point guard Kirby Gardner, who signed in June out of nowhere. This team desperately needs a floor leader, so even this late signee will get a crack at the position.
Looking Good: Keiton Page, Oklahoma State’s all-time leader in minutes played, wasn’t a natural point guard during his four years in Stillwater. Fans and critics called him just about every name — good and bad — during his career. Volume shooter. Scorer. Three-point specialist. Gritty. Leader. Tough. Slow. Undersized. They called him everything — everything except “point guard,” that is. As a senior, though, Ford had to move Page to the lead guard position out of pure necessity after two point guards (Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell) transferred before Big 12 play even began. The experiment did not exactly work. Page, coined the “grandfather” of the team by Ford, led the team in scoring and poured his heart out for an injury-rattled roster, but he was out of place. His team’s nasty scoring droughts and complete lack of offensive execution were evidence of that. That’s why the maturation of sophomore Cezar Guerrero is so, so important this year. As the only true point on the roster, he simply wasn’t ready for the limelight as a freshman. He began to grow into his role in mid-February, but he was also suspended for a game earlier in the month and never developed into a reliable floor leader. This year, Ford will have no choice but to lean on Guerrero, who will also fight with natural off-guards Marcus Smart and Markel Brown for time at that spot. It’d be helpful, though, if Guerrero (or Gardner, for that matter) took the reigns. Brown, known more for his dunking than his point guard skills, could really excel after a productive sophomore season. He and Brian Williams may take a backseat to Smart and Nash, but they’re too good to leave off the floor. Williams exploded in Big 12 play and took over the scoring load when Nash missed the final two games of the year, including a 21-point effort in a loss to Missouri in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament.
It should be apparent at this point that Travis Ford has one heck of a backcourt. Guerrero, Williams and Brown could all be better. Smart and Forte will play right away, and Le’Bryan Nash will surely build on his encouraging but inconsistent freshman campaign. The reigning Freshman of the Year still didn’t please all the critics after stepping on campus as one of the nation’s most celebrated recruits, but by all accounts, this guy is headed for a monster year, especially with Smart in the fold. Now, Ford just needs to wait on the NCAA’s decision regarding an appeal for J.P. Olukemi, who tore his knee last winter and missed all of Big 12 play. In light of transfers from Gulley and Dowell, Olukemi’s injury was a massive hit to OSU’s squad a year ago. Olukemi might be the best pure athlete in this league, and if he doesn’t get the appeal, he’ll only have a semester remaining at Oklahoma State. Either way, though, it sounds as though Olukemi will play at some point during his senior year.
With all of those guards, it’s easy to see why even Bill Self had kind words for the Cowboys this summer (never mind OSU is also his alma mater). A lack of size has plagued Ford’s teams in the past, though, and he’ll be looking for help up front this year as well. Jurick’s recent arrest doesn’t help. At 6’11”, the 270-pounder is the only player on this team capable of changing the game with his size. He’ll need help from Michael Cobbins. The coaching staff has always been high on this forward, who slipped his way into the starting lineup after redshirting in 2010-11.
Roadblocks: The Darrell Williams situation certainly counts as a roadblock, as does Jurick’s arrest (other than that, though, the play was fine, Mrs. Lincoln). All jokes aside, it wasn’t an easy summer for Oklahoma State or Travis Ford. But if the NCAA grants Olukemi an extra semester, maybe he’ll be able to move on.
State of the Program: Throw away the 2011-12 season. It was bad enough that two point guards transferred within two weeks of each other and Olukemi tore his knee. The basketball gods continued to punish Ford throughout the season, and by the end of the year, he was using walk-on Christian Sager in the rotation. Missouri destroyed the Cowboys in the Big 12 quarterfinals in Page’s final game and ended an embarrassing 15-18 campaign, the only losing season Ford has experienced in Stillwater. After a promising start to his tenure produced back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths in 2009 and 2010, Ford might be fighting to save his job in 2012-13. That’s a little bit overdramatic, but this season is critical for his program to get back on track. He excelled at first with Byron Eaton running the show and James Anderson tearing up the league. He got great mileage out of Keiton Page, too. But it’s time for the birth of a new star. Ford’s destiny lies with Le’Bryan Nash’s development this season, Marcus Smart’s performance and the emergence of a point guard. This team needs to really commit on the defensive end, too, an area Ford’s teams has never prospered with. Ford has all of the parts: the Player of the Year candidate (Nash), one of the league’s top freshmen (Smart), a brilliant backcourt and, for once, a little bit of depth in his rotation. That means the pressure’s on for Travis Ford now. You’ve got the players, coach. No more injury or depth excuses. It’s time to not only win in Stillwater, but win big. If that doesn’t materialize this season, maybe it’ll never happen.