John Klein: Cowboy basketball earning optimism with youth
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Thursday, December 20, 2012
12/20/12 at 4:43 AM
Related stories: Cowboys ride stingy defense to victory.
OSU basketball notebook: Addressing attendance.
Go to John Klein's Blog Original Print Headline: Cowboys earning optimism with youth
STILLWATER - Oklahoma State relies almost exclusively on young players.
There are going to be good and bad weeks. There are going to be good and bad games. There are going to be good and bad halves.
But the upside with Oklahoma State is pretty high, two highly-regarded prizes the past two years in recruiting to go with terrific role players who are starting to fit into place.
The Cowboys are far from a finished product, but there are high hopes that OSU will return to being relevant on the national college basketball stage this season.
"A lot of things have surprised me about this team," said OSU coach Travis Ford. "We have a lot of young guys who know they are going to play.
"But they understand the importance of defense and rebounding. Considering how young they are, they've handled things with a lot of maturity so far."
There is more optimism in Stillwater for this team than at any time since coach Eddie Sutton was leading Oklahoma State deep into March.
Le'Bryan Nash and Marcus Smart, two of the top recruits in the nation the past two years, are the centerpieces in what has become an OSU basketball renaissance.
The Cowboys were not sharp offensively in Wednesday night's 69-44 victory over Texas-Arlington at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
"We're winning but it isn't the prettiest," said Ford. "I like that we're winning with defense.
That's a good sign for a young team. A midweek game against a WAC opponent in late December isn't the kind of challenge that inspires a masterpiece.
Yet, OSU was good enough to run away from the Mavericks, who played tight and competitive games with Oklahoma and Texas earlier this season. This game was never tight nor competitive.
"I was very concerned about this game," said Ford. "They have a lot of seniors and we are so young so I was concerned."
Oklahoma State dominated from the start. The Cowboys led by 18 just 15 minutes into the game. They led by 19 at halftime. It was up to a 23-point lead just five minutes into the second half.
"I was very happy and surprised to be up 20 at half," said Ford. "I didn't expect that."
The Cowboys didn't shoot it very well but they were terrific on defense. They forced 31 turnovers, including 20 in the first half.
"I've never seen anything like it," said UTA coach Scott Cross. "Oklahoma State is a great team they played like a great team in this game.
"Texas gave us a hard time with their size and athleticism earlier this year. Oklahoma State did the same thing to us."
OSU held UTA to a mere 39 percent shooting.
"We wanted to limit their scorers and then felt like they might have trouble scoring," said Ford.
It is that defense, a reminder of how Oklahoma State built its basketball reputation, that gives the Cowboys an added way to win games. Nash and Smart might be terrific offensive players but they are also fantastic on defense. The entire team plays suffocating defense at times.
OSU has been winning with defense lately. The Cowboys didn't play all that well on offense against the Mavs, shooting just 43 percent. Nash and Smart scored just 10 points apiece. Markel Brown stepped up with 17 to go with Phil Forte's 13.
"I'm not worried about our offense," said Ford. "We shoot it too well in practice."
It won't always be pretty but the Cowboys are headed in the right direction.
There's every reason to believe Oklahoma State will be a serious contender in the Big 12 Conference, especially considering the downturn in overall level of Big 12 basketball.
Kansas is an overwhelming and deserving favorite in the Big 12 but OSU should be in the hunt right behind the Jayhawks.
And, O-State's ability to score and play defense should give its plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
OSU is 9-1 after the victory over Texas-Arlington.
Plus, the schedule plays in OSU's favor. The Cowboys get Tennessee Tech in Stillwater on Saturday before a nine-day Christmas break leading into a New Year's Eve showdown with Gonzaga.
OSU got to work with its youthful lineup last summer on a European trip.
In other words, OSU has experimented enough with its new players and fitting into a plan to be ready for the start of the Big 12 on Jan. 5 at Kansas State.
OSU's Big 12 schedule is front-loaded. The Cowboys face road trips at Kansas and Baylor, considered by most to be the two toughest trips in the league this year, during the first month.
None of this means anything if OSU doesn't continue to grow and get better.
So far, OSU's youngsters have adapted. When they need defense and rebounding to win, as they did against UTA, they are mature enough to do what is needed.
"Our players grasp that," said Ford.
That is very encouraging and makes one believe that a high of level of basketball may be returning to Stillwater.
Oklahoma State guard Le'Bryan Nash shoots as South Florida forward Kore White defends in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Stillwater. SUE OGROCKI/AP Photo