SAN DIEGO — Analysis of Oklahoma State’s NCAA Tournament chances focuses on the usual suspects.
Marcus Smart. Markel Brown. Le’Bryan Nash.
And they’re obvious suspects, with each averaging at least 14 points per game, with a combined 30 20-point games this season.
Yet they’re not the Cowboys’ only options.
And it’s possible that none of the trio is OSU’s key component as the Cowboys venture outside the familiar confines of the Big 12 Conference and begin a hopeful extended NCAA journey Friday.
If not Smart or Brown or Nash, then who?
Forte may not be the Cowboys’ best player or best scorer, but he may just be this team’s best indicator for success.
Because when Forte’s going good, the Cowboys’ offense is generally going good.
“Phil is just as important as I am,” Brown said. “We need Phil to make shots. He’s going to be a big X-Factor for this team in this postseason run.”
Forte’s ability to fire in 3-pointers at a rapid rate — he ranks 12th nationally in 3-point percentage and 24th in 3-pointers made per game (2.97) — stretches defenses and creates operating room for OSU’s Big 3 to slash and drive and work the lane. When Forte gets taken away, or has a rare off night shooting, the offense often slows to a literal standstill.
During OSU’s late-season surge into the NCAA Tournament, a 5-2 stretch with the losses in overtime to Kansas and Iowa State, Forte averaged 15.8 points per game, a bump in his season average of 13.3 and an even more impressive number considering he managed but two in a win over Kansas in Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The sophomore sharpshooter went for 20 points in the Cowboys’ slump-busting win over Texas Tech; 23 at TCU, where he set a career high with eight field goals; and 23 at home against Kansas State, when he fired in six 3-pointers. He’s scored at least 13 points in eight of the last nine games and came within one regrettable missed free throw at Iowa State of making his team’s late close even better at 6-1.
Although he was voted Big 12 Co-Sixth Man of the Year by the Big 12 coaches, he’s been a starter over OSU’s last 10 games, giving the Cowboys their best lineup.
“I just try to go out there and do whatever I can to help our team win,” said Forte, humbly staying away from including himself on OSU’s list of difference makers. “If that means I hit a couple of 3s, so be it. If that means I get a couple of steals, a loose ball… just kind of whatever I can do to help our team win.
“At this time of the year, it’s just about winning and moving forward. I’m just going to go into each and every game seeing what I can do to help our team win.”
Essentially, be an X-Factor.
Opponents have taken notice of Forte’s impact. Despite the threats that Smart, Brown and Nash pose, several Big 12 teams decided to dedicate major attention to slowing Forte down the stretch. Iowa State, Baylor and Kansas all attached defenders to his hip at all times, seemingly beginning with pregame introductions and continuing through time outs, although there’s no confirmation that those defenders attempted to shadow Forte to the halftime locker room.
Kansas approached Forte differently after he torched the Jayhawks for seven 3-pointers and 23 points in a close loss in Lawrence.
“First of all, he’s tough,” said KU coach Bill Self. “Phil is tough. He does a terrific job of moving without the ball. And he’s got a quick release — he may have the quickest release in the country.”
It’s a telling testament for OSU’s fourth scoring option, yet one he’s used to.
“It’s different, kind of what I got in high school a lot,” Forte said, “so it’s kind of going back to those days. You have to be really smart in the way you get open. Watch a lot of film and continue to evaluate yourself on a game to game basis.”
At the college level, defenders are longer and quicker, ramping up the challenges to find shooting space.
“The learning curve has been the important thing for me,” he said. “You have to work a lot harder and be smarter, ways of coming off screens. Ways to get open. And find ways to get my shot off.”
Many wondered how Forte’s game would translate at this level. He played alongside Smart at Flower Mound Marcus High (Texas), so his prep days were spent with an elite running buddy on the floor. Still, it was Forte who was named MVP of the Texas Class 5A State Tournament their senior season, when he averaged 17 points a game in semifinals and finals.
Forte’s quick trigger requires little setup or room to operate for him to get his shot off.
And he’ll be looking for room against Gonzaga on Friday. Will the Zags be looking for him, or focused on Smart, Brown and Nash?
While opponents from here on are sure to recognize Forte’s skills, the scouting reports and game plans aren’t as focused and come with little if any first-hand knowledge. And in the case that they do fully respect him, chances are they don’t appreciate what it takes to hold him.
A lot of chasing.
A lot of fighting through screens.
And then there’s the quick release.
“We’re going to need him to step up and score some points for us,” Brown said. “Everybody in the country knows that me, Le’Bryan and Marcus are going to be keyed on, it’s about what the other guys are going to do to step up and help us win.”