Coming into the season, Oklahoma State was LeBryan Nash, Phil Forte and a bunch of question marks. After losing Marcus Smart and Markel Brown to the NBA, Travis Ford's program looked like it was about to hit a tailspin at the worst time for the embattled coach. Ford would have to integrate a bunch of new faces quickly, none of whom were nearly as talented as the guys he was losing. With his back against the wall, he didn't schedule a particularly tough non-conference slate, hoping to build his team's confidence going into the Big 12 season.
The decision appears to have paid off, at least so far. Oklahoma State has an 11-3 record and they are coming off two strong performances to open Big 12 play. They handled Kansas State fairly easily at home, 61-47, and then went on the road and almost pulled off a huge upset in Ames, losing 63-61 to Iowa State. They are getting strong play from their two returning guys - Nash and Forte - and they have a good mix of players around them. It's still early, but OSU looks like a team with a real shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
The biggest difference from last season is the return of Michael Cobbins, who tore his Achilles right before the start of conference play last year. Ford has never fielded particularly deep teams and the loss of Cobbins, their only legitimate big man, crippled last year's group. Oklahoma State had one of the most imbalanced line-ups in the country, with multiple future NBA players on the perimeter and absolutely nothing in the middle. This year's group isn't as talented, but they are much more balanced and they can beat you in multiple ways.
The most encouraging part of their narrow loss to Iowa State was the way some of their young players performed. They know what they are getting from their upperclassmen - Nash, Forte, Cobbins and LSU transfer Anthony Hickey. This team's ceiling is going to depend on consistent play from guys like Jeff Newberry, who had 7 points in 17 minutes, and Tarvaris Shine, who had 8 points in 23 minutes. Nash and Forte are going to draw a ton of attention from defenses, so they need their supporting cast to open things up for them.
When everything is going well for Oklahoma State, like it was on Tuesday in Ames, they can play with almost anyone. When things aren't going well, though, they don't have a huge margin for error. They lost by 26 points at a pretty average South Carolina team. A confident team would come into a game against OSU with a long list of things they want to exploit. A reeling team like Texas is going to have to figure out a way to sneak out of Stillwater with a win against a group that is more than good enough to beat them the way they played against OU.
PG - Anthony Hickey (5'11 185) - Transferred from LSU after three solid but unspectacular seasons as a high-major starting PG. He's not great at any one thing, but he's an experienced player who can score, shoot, pass and defend. His role is to take care of the ball, make sure Forte and Nash get their shots and then spread the floor and add a little bit of his own offense from time-to-time. There are holes in his game - he's a streaky outside shooter without a lot of size on defense - but he doesn't kill them when he's out there.
SG - Phil Forte (5'11 185) - After two seasons where he was mostly known as Marcus Smart's BFF, Forte has transitioned fairly well into a lead role as a junior. He's not very big, but he's well put together and he knows how to use his body to get open. Travis Ford has given him one of the greenest lights of the country, so you have to pick him up 30-35 feet from the basket. Forte is basically who Javan Felix thinks he is - he will take shots from any distance and from any angle, except he makes them somewhat regularly. He also averages 2.7 steals a game, so don't think he can't run with the Texas guards. You have to find this guy in transition.
SF - Jeff Newberry (6'2 190) - OSU doesn't need much from Newberry, just basic 3-and-D work on the perimeter. He's like their version of Kendal Yancy, except he's a year older and more developed. He is shooting 45.8% from 3 on 1.8 attempts a game. Texas desperately needs someone to develop into this role.
PF - LeBryan Nash (6'7 235) - After experimenting with him as a SF when he first came to Stillwater, Nash has settled into a role as a small-ball PF. He may never live up to some of the expectations for him at the NBA level, but he has turned into an excellent college player. He is stuffing the stat sheet as a senior - 17 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block on 47% shooting. The key with Nash is to play off him and make him beat you first with the perimeter jumper - you don't want to give him a driving lane to the rim.
C - Michael Cobbins (6'8 230) - A freakish athlete with long arms who plays much bigger than his size. He's not going to hurt you when it comes to creating his own offense, but he can be a dominant finisher on the pick-and-roll. There's a greater than zero chance that Cobbins puts one of the Texas big men on a Vine in this game. Where he really helps OSU is as a shot-blocker - they aren't a great team in the half-court, so they want to go defense to offense and run when they can, which starts with Cobbins turning the other team over.
SG/SF - Tavarius Shine (6'6 195) - The freshman from Garland has really come on in Big 12 play, with 8 points against both Kansas State and Iowa State after averaging only 3.5 a game in non-conference. He was really the only player who made any contribution off Travis Ford's bench on Tuesday - he played more minutes (23) than the other 6 reserves combined. He's big, athletic and he has shown the ability to shoot and drive, so he looks like he could be a real player for OSU.
Keys to the Game:
1) After a loss like OU, it almost doesn't matter who the other team is. OSU saw the game the same as everyone else and they are going to try and copy OU's game-plan as much as possible. That's what makes conference basketball so different - the other teams already have a good feel for your personnel, so they come into every game with a good idea of where they need to attack. This is why Scott Drew's teams tend to better in the NCAA Tournament, where no one has seen them before, than in the Big 12. The really depressing part about that loss on Monday is that we have seen it so many times before. The book on Rick Barnes is really long and it has many authors, but it's always the same story. You can bet OSU is going to pack the paint, play off the Texas guards and get back in transition - it's going to come down to whether we can shoot enough to win.
2) The max shooting line-up is probably Taylor, Felix, Barnett, Holmes and Lammert - though I would be open to suggestions in the comments. That's not the kind of line-up that Barnes wants to play, but he might not have a choice. 14 points is not an acceptable amount of points for a college basketball team to have at the half. It's hard to play in a game like that and it's harder to watch a game like that and I can assure you that our
corporate masters broadcast partners at ESPN didn't appreciate having to televise a game like that. At the very least, let's play a game of basketball on Saturday and not waste everyone's time.
3) Jonathan Holmes, Isaiah Taylor and LeBryan Nash - The three guys with the best chance of taking over a game late. If Texas decides to play a game of basketball and the game is close in the final minutes, it's probably going to come down to one of those guys making some big plays. That goes double for Texas as the road team, where you need your main guys to come up big so everyone can play off them. If you want to know where Holmes is as a NBA prospect, this match-up with Nash, another fringe 2nd round senior combo forward, should say a lot.
I wish I could say that I am not overreacting to one loss to OU, but I'm not even sure how you could overreact to a game like that. You want get a good game to put that in the rearview as soon as possible because otherwise things can snowball fast in the Big 12. Check out the next five games after OSU - vs. West Virginia, at TCU, vs. Kansas, at Iowa State, at Baylor.
The game is at 4:00 PM Central on ESPNU.