1. What’s the biggest storyline to follow during the nonconference slate?
John Helsley - With Cobbins out, how will the Cowboys adjust to the challenges they’ll face in handling bigger teams in the paint? Size and bulk were already an issue before Cobbins suffered a fractured toe in the exhibition game. The pressure is on Kamari Murphy and Marek Soucek to play tough inside. And it’s on Philip Jurick to recover quickly from off-season achilles surgery. OSU was already committed to getting their guards involved in crashing the boards. So expect to see Brown, Nash and Smart all grabbing their share, or at least trying.
Anthony Slater - How improved is Le’Bryan Nash? I think, generally, we have an idea of what the other key cogs are going to give this team (Markel’s scoring/defense, Forte’s shooting, Smart’s all-around game). But Nash is the wild card. And likely the barometer for where this season can go. He was a disappointment last season, no question, but showed some improvement near the end. But the Cowboys doesn’t need a slightly improved Nash, they need a dominant one. A guy that’s long been said to have NBA talent needs to show it, consistently and clearly, for OSU to reach its potential. And we should know early on what kind of strides he’s made.
2. Who’s going to lead this team in scoring?
Helsley - If Brown’s improved shot is for real, he could average in the upper-teens scoring, which would be significant on a team that could feature balanced scoring. Already a dynamic slasher and dunker, a consistent jumper would only open up the floor more for Brown. And defenses will have to be aware of Smart, who can drive and penetrate and dish. It all sets up for Brown.
Slater - As discussed in the first question, the best thing for this OSU would be a dominant Le’Bryan Nash leading the team (and even the conference) in scoring. But I’m not yet a believer. He needs to prove it on the court. So for now, I’ll go with Markel Brown, a guy many are sleeping on. The athleticism’s always been there (everyone knows that), and the once-broken shot does look like it’s become reliable. But his maturity is what’s impressed me most. He looks like a guy who’s been through two Big 12 seasons (the only one who has on the team) and knows exactly what to expect. He’s confident, not cocky, and ready for a huge breakout year.
3. Player who will surprise?
Helsley - Phil Forte came to OSU as Smart’s old high school teammate. But he was much more than that, a key cog in Flower Mound Marcus High’s charge to two straight Texas state championships as a shooter and a scorer and a leader. The kid can really shoot it, as we all saw in the exhibition game. And with teams sure to be more focused on OSU’s more established scorers, Forte will get open shots.
Slater - Forte’s the obvious choice (and I agree with what you said John), but I’m going with Kamari Murphy. He, not Forte, is the newcomer who no one really talked about. Marcus Smart was highlighted, his high school teammate was mentioned and the lengthy 6-foot-8 rebounder from Brooklyn was somewhat forgotten. But come tipoff Friday night, in Murphy’s first collegiate game, he will be at center court, already a key part of OSU’s starting lineup. And with the way he plays (a non-stop motor and team-first attitude), Cowboy fans are going to love him right away.
4. Is this a tournament team?
Helsley - Barring more injuries — knock on wood, Cowboys fans — this has the look of a team that should challenge for a top four spot in the Big 12 and get back into March Madness for the first time since 2009-10. Recent teams have lacked a floor general, which Smart provides. He should facilitate a more reliable offense and bring a needed toughness to the floor and all those around him. OSU lacks size, for sure, but true talented big men are rare in the college game anyway.
Slater - Yes. The talent is there, the nonconference schedule is softer and the Big 12 is rebuilding. So the path is paved for this team to return to the tournament that used to be a guarantee. But, like you mentioned, OSU can’t afford any more injuries. Two starters are already down.
5. If they don’t make it, is Travis Ford’s job in jeopardy?
Helsley - Always a tough question. I know Mike Holder believes in Ford, who has recruited well of late. The injury issues have already handcuffed him somewhat for the early going, although fans won’t want to hear any excuses. The bottom line is the Cowboys are talented enough to make the NCAA Tournament and should make it. Falling short will likely cause a long hard look at the situation.
Slater - Like with anything, it all depends on how it goes down. If a few more players get banged up, they fight through a tough Big 12 and narrowly miss out on the dance, there’s a good chance he’s still around. Especially with the way he’s been recruiting. But if his athletic team — the type he’s been longing for since his Stillwater arrival — hovers near or below .500, playing sloppy, uninspired and without an identity, the masses will be calling for a change. I have no idea how it’s going to go, but it’ll be interesting to watch. Definitely a defining hoops season set to begin in Stillwater.