One Burning Question: Will Jawun Evans and Phil Forte Get Enough Help Inside?

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 28th, 2016

After several years of underperformance, Oklahoma State finally parted ways with Travis Ford and made the splashiest move of the offseason in hiring Brad Underwood. A former Kansas State assistant, Underwood arrives in Stillwater with a shiny 89-14 record over three seasons at Stephen F. Austin, including an upset of his mentor Bob Huggins’ program, West Virginia, in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament. The returns of Phil Forte and Jawun Evans should provide Underwood with an excellent base to his first season. The sharpshooting Forte is an underrated Big 12 veteran who owns a career 38.9 percent three-point shooting clip and is an automatic 86.6 percent at the free throw line. Evans’ corresponding emergence as an NBA prospect on the strength of his advanced vision and handle gives the Cowboys a lift they badly need. The question this team faces, though, is a familiar one despite a new head coach at the helm: Will the Cowboys’ frontcourt be effective enough to keep opposing defenses from overloading on their two potent guards?

Phil Forte's return gives the Cowboys an instant boost. (Mic Smith/AP)

Phil Forte’s return gives the Cowboys an instant boost. (Mic Smith/AP)

The Cowboys under Ford were never known for stout frontcourts, and last season may have been their low point, especially on the offensive end. Oklahoma State shot a league-worst 55.2 percent at the rim, per, relying on free throws and, without Forte, shaky three-point shooting to carry the load. It went about as poorly as you’d imagine, as the team finished last in the conference in offensive efficiency. Fortunately, Underwood could be the right guy to reverse the Pokes’ fortunes. His last two Lumberjack teams ranked 15th and sixth nationally in converting twos and were especially effective at the rim, shooting 67.7 percent on close looks last season and 63.3 percent the year before. The defenses that Underwood will see in the Big 12 will be more imposing than the ones he faced in the Southland, but the standard he’ll have to meet is mere respectability rather than elite production.

The frontcourt may not be as promising as the backcourt in Stillwater, but there are some pieces already in place that should improve Oklahoma State’s disappointing interior play. Leyton Hammonds broke out as a junior, averaging 10.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game and will be counted on to help Forte lead the team. Eastern Illinois transfer Chris Olivier put up effective per-40 numbers of 19.2 points and 7.3 rebounds as a sixth man, but playing time was inconsistent as Ford used 10 different starting lineups throughout the season. Another big man who should be utilized more is junior Mitchell Solomon, who was the team’s best offensive rebounder last season, but foul trouble limited his ability to stay on the floor.

Forte’s return from a season-ending elbow injury will give the Cowboys an instant lift. He’ll easily help the team improve on last year’s underwhelming 32.8 percent performance from distance and will make opposing defenses think twice about cheating to help on the dynamic Evans. With Forte spacing the floor, Evans should have more room to operate and get into the lane, where he can either try to draw contact on the way to the rim, kick the ball out to a shooter like Forte, Jeffrey Carroll or Tavarius Shine or simply drop it off to an open big man. Brad Underwood earned his new job by developing players who can finish inside. Whether he can do the same thing at Oklahoma State will play a large role in determining whether the Cowboys emerge from the lower tier of the league this season.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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