Big 12 Team Preview: Oklahoma State CowboysPosted by Brian Goodman on November 7th, 2013
This week, the Big 12 microsite will finish previewing each of the league’s 10 teams. Today: Oklahoma State.
Where We Left Off: After a crushing loss to an under-seeded Oregon team in the NCAA Tournament, Marcus Smart made the pain go away for OSU fans, shocking Stillwater and the rest of the college basketball world by announcing his return for the 2013-14 season. That news briefly led prognosticators to peg the Cowboys as the most realistic challenger to dethrone Kansas atop the standings, but then Andrew Wiggins committed to the Jayhawks. Now, not only do we have a bona fide conference race, but a POY race too. The product is a scenario where each team’s destiny, whether you’re talking about the conference title race or the bigger picture of the NCAA Tournament, could very well hinge on how their respective stars perform.
Positives: Smart may be the heart and soul of Travis Ford‘s team, but Oklahoma State wouldn’t be a Final Four contender without a very good supporting cast. It isn’t without flaws (more on that in a bit), but there may not be a team in the country that can match Oklahoma State’s backcourt tandem of Smart and Markel Brown. While the former is a surefire lottery pick, the latter has improved every season he’s been on campus. He can still destroy a rim as ferociously as he did in his earlier years, but he’s upped his stroke from the free throw line as well as beyond the arc while lowering his turnover rate despite more possessions every season. There isn’t much more you could want from a four-year player. Phil Forte gives the Cowboys a one-dimensional but very capable long distance bomber, and junior wing Le’Bryan Nash is a refined three-point stroke away from being a total match-up nightmare.
Negatives: It’s been mentioned ad nauseum on other sites and publications, but that doesn’t make it untrue here: Who is going to be the bruiser inside? Michael Cobbins can be an intimidating post presence, but he stands just 6’8″ and will need some help. Sophomore Kamari Murphy and junior Gary Gaskins are also capable of chipping in, but we need to see it to believe it after Phillip Jurick’s graduation. Additionally, while the offense is very good, it could stand to use some improvement. As vaunted as he is, Smart shot just 40 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three-point range, sometimes struggling with turnovers even after adjusting for his workload. Forte’s accuracy can come and go, so he needs to find ways to contribute when his shot doesn’t fall. Elsewhere, despite being a junior, Nash needs to prove that he’s done making freshman mistakes like biting on fakes and missing his rotations and accept his role as “just” a secondary option on a team stacked with weapons.
Best-Case Scenario: While the Cowboys’ front line after Michael Cobbins is a question mark, it doesn’t necessarily need to be outstanding for OSU to put an end to Kansas’ reign at the top of the Big 12 heap. If the backcourt performs the way it’s capable of performing, the post game only needs to be dependable. In an ideal scenario, Cobbins, Murphy and Gaskins combine to keep opposing defenses from hedging out to the perimeter and make them pay when they do. For the Cowboys to win the Big 12, the trio of Smart, Brown and Nash also needs to make the tweaks necessary to become a much more efficient core, because there isn’t much else that’s stopping them from dethroning the Jayhawks. Of course, this season, like every season, is about more than just the conference race. If Oklahoma State ties up its loose ends, it’ll have a great chance at making its first Final Four in 10 years.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Cowboys’ frontcourt proves to be little more than extra sets of fouls, putting way too much pressure on their perimeter scorers to deliver. While those three players are NBA prospects of various standing, their collective efficiency needs to come up. If it doesn’t, the team and its fans will end the season wondering what might have been. However, the crazy thing here is that even if Oklahoma State regresses, we can’t see them finishing any lower than third in the conference — that’s how top-heavy this league is. The issue there, though, is that a third-place finish in a down Big 12 would probably leave the Cowboys with an unprotected seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Probable Starting Lineup
- C – Michael Cobbins (Jr., 6.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, team-leading 56.2% 2FG)
- PF – Kamari Murphy (So., 3.9 RPG in 18.1 MPG)
- SF – Le’Bryan Nash (Jr., 14.0 PPG, 74.1% FT)
- SG – Markel Brown (Sr., 15.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 76% FT, 34.1 MPG)
- PG – Marcus Smart (So., 15.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 3.0 SPG, 33.5 MPG)
Reserves: In addition to Cobbins and Murphy, Gaskins and Leyton Hammonds give Travis Ford a group of big bodies, but we hesitate to call that core “deep” because we don’t know if the skills to make the frontcourt a strength will be there. The supporting cast in the backcourt is much more talented. Freshman Stevie Clark and Phil Forte would start for many teams, but among a loaded stable of guards, they’ll come off the bench in Stillwater. Brian Williams will also be available to help out.
Set Your DVR: The Cowboys’ non-conference schedule isn’t fully loaded, but it’s important to keep in mind that as much of a surprise as Marcus Smart’s return was, non-conference match-ups between major conference teams are usually set a year or two in advance. The planning process just doesn’t allow for adjustments after stud prospects surprise the basketball world by returning to school, so you have to picture Travis Ford putting a slate together without his outstanding point guard in mind. On the other hand, maybe Ford wouldn’t have done anything differently if he knew his NPOY candidate would be back, because the schedule is still quite solid. Oklahoma State plays just one true road game (at South Florida), but with two non-conference “events” and a semi-home date in Oklahoma City, any gripes would be misguided.
- 11/19 vs. Memphis: The non-bracketed component of the Old Spice Classic gives the Cowboys a home game against what is probably the second-best team in the field, and if you like outstanding guard play (and really, who doesn’t?), you’re going to devour this tilt. The Tigers’ core of Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford are one of very few teams that might have a better backcourt than the Pokes. Plus, depending on the breaks in the bracketed portion of the event in Kissimmee later in the month, we could even get a rematch on December 1. How awesome would that be?
- 11/28-12/1 at Old Spice Classic: The Cowboys will be a heavy favorite to take the Old Spice Classic crown among a field of solid but not jaw-dropping contenders, including Memphis, Purdue, Butler, LSU, Siena, Washington State and St. Joseph’s. Oklahoma State opens the bracketed portion of the event on Thanksgiving Day at Noon ET against Purdue.
- 12/21 vs. Colorado (MGM Grand Showcase in Las Vegas): OSU squares off against a former Big 12 foe on a neutral floor. The backcourt battle of Marcus Smart vs. Spencer Dinwiddie should be an entertaining one, and we’ll get a chance to see if the Cowboys’ big men can succeed against a young but promising duo of Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon.
- 1/18 at Kansas and 3/1 vs. Kansas – It would be a grave injustice to list Oklahoma State’s most important games and not include these two match-ups. We touched on this in the RTC Big 12 Podblast, but it’s worth mentioning here as well. Not only are these games worth circling because they’re the league’s two best teams and feature the two best players, but the teams’ strengths and weaknesses mirror each other so perfectly (to start the season, at least) that the intrigue will be off the charts. The Cowboys are a menace from the perimeter and have questions marks down low; Kansas will field a terrific frontcourt of Andrew Wiggins, Tarik Black, Perry Ellis and a possible top 10 pick in Joel Embiid, but need to have a steady solution at the controls by the time these games roll around. How each team addresses their weaker points between now and then could determine the conference champion. Who’s going to be the difference?
Outlook: Over the last nine years, there haven’t been many teams with the firepower necessary to take the Jayhawks down, though there have been a few close calls (Texas in 2007 and 2008 and Oklahoma in 2009 come to mind). Can these Cowboys do it? They’re facing an uphill battle, but with the right breaks, it’s certainly possible. Smart may not be the best pro prospect in the Big 12, but he’s one hell of a college player, and while he isn’t without some shortcomings, the team needs to make the most of his second and final year in Stillwater.