Oklahoma State's poised to make a clean break from recent history in more ways than one this season. The Cowboys haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 2009, and in Travis Ford's four seasons in Stillwater his team has compiled a rather unsightly 6-27 record on the road in Big 12 play.
I'll go out on a limb and predict that OSU will beat that 18 percent winning rate this season in Big 12 away games. In fact for a team that was buried deep in the "also receiving votes" section of the preseason polls, the Cowboys greet the new calendar year looking like a surprisingly solid pick as the second-best team in the conference, behind only Kansas.
Give Ford credit. This team has improved markedly from last season, and the Cowboys are getting the job done with defense and youth, in that order. In a season where the Big 12's weaker statistically than it's been in a decade, Oklahoma State's going against that grain and doing the league proud. Here's why Ford has the perfect team to bring the rowdy back to Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Great defense comes with you on the road
In the high-turnover world of Division I head coaching (not to mention the realigning world of D-I conferences), Ford's practically a league elder after just four seasons in the Big 12: Rick Barnes, Bill Self, and Scott Drew are the only coaches who've been in the conference longer. So what I'm about to say might qualify as ancient history, but way back in 2008 Ford was hired at OSU thanks to a track record at UMass that brought together an up-tempo style with, somewhat surprisingly, very good interior defense.
The fast pace lasted exactly one season in Stillwater (2008-09) and then disappeared, but as of this season that strong defense in the paint has clearly arrived. This season opponents have made just 40 percent of their twos against the Cowboys, and Ford's team has benefited from what might be called dispersed shot blocking. You won't find any single Jeff Withey-type figure on this defense, but between 6-11 Philip Jurick, 6-8 Kamari Murphy, 6-8 Michael Cobbins, and even 6-4 point guard Marcus Smart, Ford always has multiple players on the floor capable of swatting or at least altering shots.
Traditionally defenses that can block shots are often content to camp in the paint and stay out of the passing lanes. Not Oklahoma State. The same athleticism that puts them in position to block shots has also allowed them to pressure opponents into coughing up the ball on 23 percent of their possessions. That turnover rate will likely dip in conference play, but Smart in particular has proven without a doubt that he's capable of disrupting opposing offenses -- whether with a steal or a block. He is the OSU defense summed up in one tenacious player.
Speaking of Smart....
Ford's fabulous freshmen
I've already had occasion this season to sing the praises of various freshmen at places like UCLA, Kentucky, and Arizona, and rightly so. But in terms of performance on both sides of the ball to date, Smart and Phil Forte (as well as the aforementioned Murphy) deserve the same level of praise as all of the above.
If you watched the Cowboys' 69-68 loss to Gonzaga in Stillwater on New Year's Eve, you know just how good Smart really is. (And you know just how surprising it is that he missed those two free throws late. Smart's an 80 percent shooter at the line.) Facing one of the best teams in the country, the freshman from Flower Mound, Texas scored 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting and dished six assists. A scoring point guard with skills like that who also plays D and is listed at 6-4 and 225 is, to say the very least, a rarity, and Smart can likely transition to the next level this summer should he choose to do so.
In the category labeled "OSU freshmen," Smart's been attracting the lion's share of the attention and even some disputation, but don't overlook Forte. With Smart holding down the point guard duties, Forte comes off the bench as a 5-11 shooting guard (calling to mind the similarly sized former Texas 2-guard A.J. Abrams). As a team Oklahoma State doesn't pose much if any threat in terms of perimeter shooting, but Forte's hitting 42 percent of his threes. His importance is belied by the fact that he's not a starter -- without Forte opposing defenses could (and should) simply pack the paint and dare the Cowboys to win from the outside.
Don't apologize for your "down" league, dominate it
Ford's blend of youth and veterans like 6-7 sophomore Le'Bryan Nash (who may accompany Smart as a first-round pick this summer) and 6-3 junior Markel Brown (dueling Nash for leading-scorer honors on the season) has powered OSU to an 11-2 start. And if published reports are to be believed and the offseason wrist injury suffered by 6-5 sophomore Brian Williams is not as serious as initially indicated, his return could further bolster an already strong rotation.
The Cowboys' resurgence comes at a time when the non-Kansas Big 12 looks about as weak as we've seen for a good long while, at least on paper. But how much weight does that paper really carry when it comes to actual games? Good question. Note for example that in recent years the Pac-12 has tended to sport a very bad conference-wide number for average team strength, and I've been quick to mount what might be called the "Hey, it's not Washington's or Cal's fault the Pac-12 commissioner added Utah for football" defense. In other words, one or two unusually bad teams can bring down a whole league's "average" strength.
This season we should see that truth brought home with a vengeance in the Big 12. Kansas is still Kansas, of course, but the Big 12's overall strength will look weaker than usual statistically because both Texas Tech and TCU will, apparently, have very unimposing teams.
It's not Oklahoma State's fault that two programs in their league are or may be aberrantly helpless, however it appears that the top half of the Big 12 is in fact weaker than usual as well. For instance if we look at the past five seasons, this projects to be the least formidable group of teams we've seen from the league over that span, with the possible exception of 2010-11. In a nutshell, Texas is struggling mightily on offense, Missouri left, and the Big 12 happens to be welcoming West Virginia at a time when the Mountaineers aren't quite up to their usual Bob Huggins-era standard.
As a result, watch for Oklahoma State to battle Kansas State for second place in the Big 12 behind the Jayhawks, starting with Saturday's game in Manhattan between the Cowboys and the Wildcats. These are good times for rowdy Cowboy fans, and with Smart and Nash on track to be presented with next-level opportunities sooner rather than later, there really is no time like the present in Stillwater.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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