Oklahoma State should be one of the best teams in the Big12 this year. They may have the best three player combination in the league in Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash. They were dealt a tough blow in preseason in that Brian Williams- a returning starter is out for the season with a wrist injury.
Their question marks will be down low. They have some size to work with but not a great deal of skill. Michael Cobbins is the exception. He is 6'8" with a wingspan over 7 feet. He is athletic and should be one of the better shot blockers in the league. But fortunately for OSU, a great backcourt and scoring forward can take you a long way. OSU should be an NCAA tournament team after a two year hiatus.
Travis Ford starts his fifth year at Oklahoma State. He is hoping it is his most productive one. If it is not, he could find himself looking for other employment. During the Eddie Sutton era (1990- 2005) OSU fans became accustomed to NCAA appearances with a couple of Final 4 appearances mixed in. Eddie missed the NCAA tournament only 3 times in 16 years.
His son Sean took over the program after Eddie had some health related issues and missed the tourney for two straight years. He was quickly dismissed. Out with Sean Sutton; In with Travis Ford. Travis inherited a talented team led by Byron Eaton, Terrel Harris, Obi Muonelo and James Anderson. He was able to get that group to the NCAA tourney in each of his first two seasons. But he has missed the tourney the last two years. His record at OSU is 80-54 but under .500 in conference play (31-35). His overall record is 270-200.
Ford has dealt with a large dose of bad luck with injuries and off the court problems. One of his misfortunes included an entire recruiting class that turned out to be a bust. In 2009, Ford signed a 7-man class that was ranked in the top 20 nationally. All of the recruits in that class of Penn, Dowell, Franklin, Gulley, Johnson, Shaw and Walker were on other teams' rosters this year or not playing basketball for Oklahoma State. Instead of having a class of mature, experienced seniors this year, Ford has had to scramble to make up for that class.
Butch Pierre is the lead assistant for Ford. He has a reputation for being an excellent recruiter. He was at LSU from 1997-2008 as an assistant. He helped bring in plenty of NBA talent to LSU during that time. Brandon Bass, Tyrus Thomas, Stromile Swift, Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Anthony Randolph to name a few. Pierre has deep roots in Dallas which has yielded two national top 10 players the last two years: LeBryan Nash and Marcus Smart. Pierre has been at OSU since 2008.
The other two assistants are Chris Ferguson and Steve Middleton. Middleton was with Ford at UMass. Ferguson had spent some time at Tennessee and East Carolina before coming to OSU. The staff has been together for four years.
6-4 225 lbs Marcus Smart (FR)
Smart is one of the most heralded recruits in the nation. You will usually hear the same terms thrown around to describe him: baller; winner; grinder; competitor. I have seen him play multiple times. He is enjoyable to watch. He does everything well. He plays intense defense. He has great court sense. He shoots well enough. He makes the extra pass. If there is one flaw in his game, I would say sometimes his competitive nature leads him to get a bit wild.
He tries to gain an edge any way he can. He flops more than Manu Ginobli. There has been talk that college officials are going to crack down on flops this year. If they do, old habits for Smart may be hard to break. He could be taken out of games with foul trouble for playing "too aggressive". But any team would prefer "too aggressive" to passive. Marcus Smart will probably be one of the more enjoyable players to watch. The kind of player that makes a coach look smart. He will run the point for the Cowboys.
Freshmen point guards usually don't prosper in the Big12. There are growing pains. There have been exceptions (Augustin and Joseph at Texas). But generally point guard play has been dominated by upper classmen. However, I think Smart is special and I expect him to have a great season leading the Cowboys.
6-3 190 lbs Markel Brown (JR)
Brown is an athletic freak who is already one of the better on ball defenders in the Big12. He had a solid sophomore season averaging 10.5 points and 5 rebounds. His numbers were even better in conference play: 12 points; 5 rebounds. He shot 45% in conference (38% from 3 point range) and 82% from the free throw line. Those shooting numbers were all considerably better than his non conference numbers.
The question is who will provide a threat from 3 point range? Keiton Page made over 100 three pointers last year. Defenses put a lot of focus on trying to limit his effectiveness. The 2nd leading 3 point shooter (in terms of made shots) was Brian Williams who is out for the year with an injury. Teams need two good three point shooters (players that will make over 50 three pointers on the year) generally to keep defenses honest. Will OSU be able to deliver in this area?
6-2 200 lbs Kirby Gardner (JR)
Gardner is a juco transfer who averaged 17 points and over 4 assists per game. He has a reputation as a good shooter- made 49 three pointers last year and shot 86% from the free throw line. He likes to play fast which should fit in well with the OSU system. But the question on him is how good is he? Brad Winton at Juco Recruiting did not have him rated as a top 100 player. He was the best player in a conference not well thought of in juco basketball circles. But he is showing offers from A&M and Oregon as well.
5-11 195 lbs Phil Forte(FR)
Forte is listed at 5-11. He is probably closer to 5-9. He has drawn many comparisons to Keiton Page. Page came to OSU as a heralded Oklahoma high school player who broke records in points, three pointers, steals and assists. Forte comes with a different pedigree. He played on one of the best high school teams in the country. Coupled with Marcus Smart, he also played against some of the best competition. And he did well. He is an outstanding three point shooter. He plays a hard nosed tough game. He will not hurt a team.
But I have questions as to how effective he will be at the collegiate level. He has average quickness. Will he be able to get his shot off? Page was short but extremely quick. Forte does not possess this trait. He could be a good offensive player but he is likely to have limitations defensively. I don't think he will play a lot this year- especially if OSU can get scoring from the perimeter from Brown, Smart and Nash. If those guys are not effective three point shooters, OSU will need Gardner or Forte to step up.
6-7 230 lbs Le'Bryan Nash (SO)
Le'Bryan Nash is a preseason all conference candidate. He is projected to be a 1st round pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Nash had an up and down freshman year. His numbers looked fine- 13 points and 5 rebounds. He did not shoot well- under 40% from the field (24% from 3 point range). And he turned it over a lot for a guy that isn't a primary ball handler- almost 3 per game. He does get to the free throw line a bunch- 5 attempts per game. He showed flashes of brilliance: 27 points; 4 rebounds in upsetting Missouri in Stillwater. And some head scratchers: 6 points; 6 turnovers; 2-12 shooting in a 106-65 loss to Baylor.
He did finish the season strong (before breaking his hand). In his last 9 games, he scored in double figures each of those games. He should have a good year as the focal point of OSU's offense. His defense needs a lot of improvement. For a player that can be so aggressive, he has too many passive lapses on defense. His body language at times can be troubling. Hopefully, a guy like Marcus Smart can inject some of his will to win in Nash. If Nash becomes more consistent in his effort, OSU can go places.
6-6 215 lbs Jean-Paul Olukemi (SR)
Olukemi tore his ACL last January. Before the injury, he was averaging 9 points and 5 rebounds. Olukemi is an aggressive player who does a lot of good things. When healthy, he was a solid defender. He excels at getting to the foul line- almost 6 free throw attempts per game in 2010-11.
He is brick city USA from three point range- around 30%. He also has a tendency to turn the ball over. His eligibility for the 2nd semester is in question. He enrolled in a juco and took classes but never played a game of basketball. The NCAA has restored eligibility to athletes in similar situations and is expected to do so in this case. But there are no guarantees. If he is not eligible for the 2nd semester, it would be a big blow to OSU's depth.
6-8 220 lbs Michael Cobbins (SO)
Cobbins averaged 5 points and 6 rebounds during his freshman season. He also averaged 1.5 blocks per game. He is a long athletic big man that did not have enough support down low last year to maximize his effectiveness. Whether that help comes this year depends a lot on the contributions of Kamari Murphy and Philip Jurick.
Cobbins minutes increased during conference play. He averaged almost 33 minutes per game. His scoring during conference increased to 6 points per game. He averaged over 7 rebounds per game. He shot 49% from the field and 67% from the line. He doesn't get to the line very often- only shot 48 free throws on the year. Cobbins will need to give them rebounding, shot blocking and some scoring on the low blocks this year.
6-8 210 lbs Kamari Murphy (FR)
Murphy averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds for IMG Academy. He was a late bloomer on the AAU circuit. Over the summer, he surprised some folks with better competitiveness and skill than was initially expected. He was not viewed as a guy that could come in and immediately contribute during the recruiting process. OSU may need rotation minutes from him.
6-11 260 lbs Philip Jurick (SR)
Jurick is a big body down low that was expected to rebound and block shots. He did both of those things reasonably well in limited minutes. Offensively, he lacks athleticism and quickness to do much damage. He will need to score off garbage. He is recovering from an achilles tendon and some legal problems. Probably not a guy that can be relied on- anything they get from him is a bonus.
7-0 235 lbs Marek Soucek(SO)
Soucek is another big body. But he is more of a finesse player. He can hit 3 point shots. He is slow and a guy that I don't think will be a heavy contributor. Although he did see a big spike in his minutes at the end of the season. But that was due to lots of injury problems.
Outlook and Questions
Ford desperately needs for this team to finish above .500 in the conference and make the NCAA tournament to buy him more time. If he fails to make the tournament again, he will likely be fired at the end of the season. I enjoy watching his system. They do a lot of off the ball screens and have constant motion looking for drives to the hoop; easy jumpers or back door cuts. Defensively, they get after people on the perimeter. The strength of this team is the quality of their top 3 players- Smart, Brown and Nash. And many times, 3 is all you need to have an excellent team. All three of those guys could be NBA players.
Five questions for OSU heading into the season:
1. Who are the perimeter threats? Gardner shot over 55% from 3 point range in juco, but playing in the Big12 is a whole different level of speed. Will Smart be able to make the adjustment and shoot effectively from the outside? Will they get efficient three point shooting from Nash and Brown? Will there be a surprise like Soucek or Forte that steps up?
2. Will OSU be a much better rebounding team? Last year, they were dominated on the boards in a lot of games. Will Nash improve on his 5 rebounds per game average? Will Smart be a guard that grabs 5 or 6 rebounds per game? Last year they finished 333rd in offensive rebounding percentage and 244th in defensive rebounding percentage. They will need to improve dramatically to be an NCAA tournament team.
3. Ford has a lot of pressure on him to win big this year. Sometimes the pressure can mount and tear a team apart from within. They have an easy non conference schedule outside of the Puerto Rico Tip Off (NC State; Providence; Tennessee) and at Virginia Tech. Will they take advantage and build confidence early in the season?
4. How far can a freshman guard take them? Marcus Smart is a special player. But he is not an elite athlete that can blow by people at will like a John Wall type. He has more of an old school game. Dennis Johnson of the Boston Celtics is a comparison that comes to mind. Will that be enough to get OSU at least 20 wins?
5. The quality of depth for OSU appears to be an issue. They have some players that might play more minutes than they had hoped before the season. Darrell Williams was a guy they were hoping would play down low for them. He was convicted of sexual assault. Brian Williams- one of their top 6 players breaks his wrist and is out for the year. Cezar Guerrero transfers to Fresno State. Travis Ford has had 12 players transfer or not make it to OSU under his watch. Does the lack of continuity and stability in the program catch up to him?