1. Finish this sentence: Marcus Smart’s play has been _____________ thus far.
John Helsley (beat writer) - Just what the doctor ordered. Smart and his skills and his awareness for game situations are all major ingredients that have been lacking in recent years. And it’s all neatly tied together in one package, with a player who does so much for the team, often recognized in the stat sheet, where his impact on so many aspects is seen. The word was that Smart would make everyone around him better. And he has.
Anthony Slater (sports blogger) - Program-changing. Seems bold, especially five games into his career, but I don’t think it’s exaggeration. The Cowboys are crisper on offense, better on defense and more energized in all facets. Much of that can be attributed to Smart, the do-it-all 6-foot-4 bulky point guard who completely changed the environment upon arrival. And before he’s even played a Big 12 game, people are noticing.
2. What (or who) has been the biggest surprise? Disappointment?
Helsley - Philip Jurick. Not only has he returned sooner than expected from an achilles injury, he’s playing his best basketball as a Cowboy. Dropping some 30 pounds or more has helped, as he’s more agile and more confident, leading to fewer fouls and much more production. Disappointment — the other injuries. Can you imagine this team — which is already good — with Brian Williams and JP Olukemi? Mike Cobbins and Marek Soucek will be back soon, which will help. But the injuries overall, particularly the loss of Williams, a defensive stopper, are still a downer.
Slater - You’re right on both parts. Jurick has been great and the injuries have been killer. But for variety sake, I’ll examine another trend. How about Le’Bryan Nash and, namely, his improved consistency? Last season, in glimpses, he showed the five-star talent. But it was so rare and often overshadowed by questionable body language and shot selection. That’s not an issue this year. He’s taking it to the rim, getting to the line and hitting when there (41-48 in five games). And he’s shown the improved effort and consistency you’d hope for, putting up at least 16 points and five rebounds in every game. It’s been a nice sophomore jump, not slump, for Le’Bryan Nash.
3. Looking ahead, how long can this unbeaten streak go? To Gonzaga? Past Gonzaga?
Helsley - I think the Cowboys at least carry an unbeaten record into the Gonzaga game on New Year’s Eve, which by then will surely be a clash of Top 10 teams. A road trip to Kansas State follows. That’s winnable, although the Pokes still have to prove they’re a team ready to dismiss recent road woes. I’m saying the Cowboys remain perfect entering Big 12 play, then it gets interesting.
Slater – Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech is scarier than people realize. It’s the first true road test for a young and depleted roster. And the Hokies are talented (and undefeated). If OSU gets in foul trouble early, it could spell trouble late. But if the Cowboys escape Blacksburg with that undefeated record intact, an 11-0 mark heading into New Years Eve is likely. And wouldn’t that be fun. Would they have a chance to beat Gonzaga? We’ll have a better feel in the coming weeks.
4. Fact or fiction: This team has a legit shot to win the Big 12.
Helsley - Fact. The Big 12 isn’t showing its usual fangs — yet — and that extends to KU. The Cowboys have created the best buzz in the conference thus far. And they figure to only get better when Cobbins rejoins the mix. I think OSU is right there in the mix entering the final weeks of the season.
Slater - Fact. They still aren’t the favorites. But I don’t hesitate in labeling OSU the lead challenger to end Kansas’ eight-year conference title run. Baylor is talented, but wildly inconsistent. And the rest of the league is underwhelming. In basketball, stars make all the difference. And the Cowboys have a pair (Smart and Nash) playing better than any other tandem in the league. If that continues, a conference title is well within reach.