SAN JOSE, Calif. — Markel Brown has gone from raw athlete to skilled marvel. Michael Cobbins has gone from project to poor-man's Ivan McFarlin. Le'Bryan Nash has gone from jacking up long shots to attacking the basket.
Freshman Marcus Smart is a primary reason for the OSU basketball revival, which has the Cowboys in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
But there's another reason the Cowboys are here, playing Oregon at 3:40 p.m. (Oklahoma time) Thursday in the Midwest Regional.
Player development. Cowboy veterans have gotten better. Noticeably better. Remarkably better.
Maybe Travis Ford doesn't outfox opponents with spiffy strategy. But the OSU coach has aced his two most important duties. Recruit elite talent, and mine that talent after it reaches campus.
“In our program, that's what we talk about the most,” Ford said. “We take the most pride in developing players.”
Brown has become an all-Big 12 caliber player, possible first-round NBA draft pick and OSU's leading scorer, at 15.3 points a game. Two years ago, who saw that coming?
Cobbins has become an efficient offensive player, in addition to his rebounding and shot-blocking prowess. Make another leap next season, and he will be the equal of McFarlin, Eddie Sutton's sturdy, four-year power forward.
And Nash, while still occasionally frustrating, has learned that his value is in the paint, where he can score much easier than from beyond the 3-point line.
“My coaches, building me up, telling me what I can do on and off the court,” Cobbins said of the secret of his success. “Where I can get on the court to score. Put me in position to make plays.”
Smart clearly triggered OSU's breakout season. But the maturation of the holdovers gave Smart a band to lead that was capable of success.
“When we talk recruiting to players, we tell them that is the backbone of our program,” Ford said. “We want to develop players. When you leave Oklahoma State, we want you to maximize your ability.
“Basketball is the ultimate team sport, but our team can't become great if every individual player doesn't reach his potential.”
This is not new to Ford. James Anderson and Obi Muonelo played their final two OSU seasons under Ford and became much better players, notably with their passing. Marshall Moses seemed to improve by the month while playing for Ford.
Make no mistake. The most important figure in player development is the player himself. If a player isn't committed, improvement is unlikely.