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Berry Tramel

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Oklahoma State basketball: Playing its best ball of the season

by Berry Tramel Modified: March 13, 2014 at 9:15 am •  Published: March 13, 2014

OSU routed Texas Tech 80-62 Wednesday in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament. Here’s what I saw and heard:

* Great news for the Cowboys. They really are playing their best basketball of the season. Playing like they did in November and December, only against consistently better competition. Not necessarily Tech, but Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State. The Cowboys are playing well.

“You know, we have had a lot of downfalls this year in this season, but everything happens for a reason,” Marcus Smart said. “It was a big learning point for this basketball team. It tested our character. And, you know, to see how we was going to respond, we came out and responded in a way that we expected to respond, and we came out, we gelled together as a team. That’s all the coaching staff talked about, when your backs are up against the wall, all you can do is lean on your teammates. And that’s what we did, and we started gelling at the right time.”

Said Markel Brown, “I honestly think that we’re playing good right now, but our best basketball is still to come. We still have little small mistakes that we can adjust, and that will make us a better team, and I think our best basketball is still ahead of us.”

* I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about Smart’s fabulous game: 18 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, six steals. Sixty percent shooting (6-of-10). Zero turnovers. That’s basketball at its highest level. Anyone who thinks Smart is overrated, or won’t be a high draft pick, can watch this game and get straightened out real quick.

* Leyton Hammonds had the biggest basket of the game. His 3-pointer three minutes into the game ended Tech’s 8-0 start and made everyone who bleeds orange to go, oh, OK, this is going to be all right, after all. Hammonds is coming along. He played 18 minutes, scored six points, had just one turnover, grabbed a couple of rebounds. Solid ballgame.

* Hammonds got in the game quickly for two reasons: 1) Kamari Murphy seemed lost early and often; 2) Brian Williams’ puzzling descent into the doghouse. But good news on both fronts. Murphy ended up getting motivated late in the game and mixing it up with Tech’s big men. Murphy finished with two points and one rebound, but he at least seemed in the game. And Williams played much better Wednesday – 20 minutes, three steals, three rebounds, six points. His best game in quite awhile.

* This game showed OSU’s strengths and weaknesses. Strengths, I wrote about in the Thursday Oklahoman, which is OSU’s pressure defense, which led to all kinds of easy baskets. You can read that column here. Weaknesses, interior. Tech had 17 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points. Dejan Kravic, a nice big man for a Tech (I mean that every way), had 18 points and 12 rebounds. Tech also has Jordan Tolbert, who didn’t play all that well (six points, two rebounds), and brought off the bench Alex Foster, Kader Tapsoba and Aaron Ross. That’s five inside players who would be in the OSU rotation if they happened to be Cowboys.

“Proud of the win, proud of the effort,” Ford said. “Thought we got after it defensively in the first half, after we got out to a slow start, obviously. But I wasn’t overly concerned about it. I thought we would get into the flow, but our defense really started causing some turnovers. These guys were very, very active, very active defensively in the first half, not quite as much the second half. Didn’t rebound the ball very well in the second half. But hopefully we saved a few.”

* Tech made one of five 3-point shots. And if you don’t remember the one, it’s not your fault. Stan Mays entered the game in the final two minutes and swished the 3-pointer on Tech’s final possession of the game. Meanwhile, OSU made nine of 22 3-pointers. Brown was 3-of-6, Phil Forte was 4-of-9 (after going without a first-half basket), Smart was 1-of-2 and Hammonds was 1-of-3. That’s winning basketball. Forte had two points at halftime, yet OSU had a 46-23 lead. That’s a great sign, too.

“We certainly have to get some outside shooting,” said Tech coach Tubby Smith. “We’ve really struggled shooting the ball from the outside all year long, and we’re trying to ‑‑ and when you’re not able to ‑‑ we try to throw it inside. We felt like our strength was our interior play, but today and against good teams they find ways to double you and make other people handle the ball and now you’re not as good a passing team and they take you out of your rhythm, out of your offense.”

* Eight turnovers total for OSU. Tech had seven turnovers in the final 5:39 of the first half.

“I thought we ran our offense for the first time pretty complete for 40 minutes,” Ford said. “Pretty good for 40 minutes. We took good shots. We had good possessions, and we’ve got a lot of respect for Texas Tech. That’s a really good basketball team, a big physical team.”

* Le’Bryan Nash had 10 points and four rebounds, but he seemed to be playing with one hand when he didn’t have the ball. In other words, he was trying to catch and rebound, protecting that dislocated finger. Nash had four turnovers. If he can’t use that finger more against Kansas, the Cowboys could be in trouble.

* Smart was asked about Brown’s leadership this season. “It was tremendous on his part, especially everything that this team has been going through,” Smart said. “We needed that type of leadership, him being the senior captain on this team. He stood up and took responsibility when we needed it. It not only helped him but helped his team in a variety of ways. We’re playing better basketball and part of it is because of him.”

* Tech won the locker room. The Red Raiders opened the game with an 8-0 run, then opened the second half with a 7-0 run. Take away the first three minutes or so of each half, and OSU outscored Tech 80-47.

“We’ve been playing very well on the defensive end lately,” Smart said. “And we looked at each other, and we looked over at the bench at Coach Ford. You could see he was a little disgusted how we were playing defensively, which was understood, because this team understands that we’re a very well defensive team, and we can turn people over. And we can press the pressure around people. And we understood that Texas Tech was going to come out and give us a punch. We had to sustain it. We were a little slow. We looked at Coach and we decided, you know, huddled everybody up, me and Markel, and we told them it’s 8‑0. We already know what Texas Tech is coming to do. They threw a punch and we have to throw one back and keep fighting, and that’s what we did.”

* Brown had 18 points in the first half. He finished with 20. OSU didn’t need his offense in the second half. The Cowboys most definitely needed his offense in the first half.

“I was just playing with the flow,” Brown said. “I seen that our offense wasn’t clicking in the first eight minutes. And I just wanted to go out there and make a play for our team. And once I started making shots, that opened up things for other players, and that’s when our defense came along. Marcus ended up with six steals tonight, which was huge, and we was able to pressure the ball and find the shots we needed.”

* Will the Cowboys be fatigued against Kansas? OSU-Tech ended about 8:10 p.m. Wednesday. OSU-Kansas tipoff is 2 p.m. Thursday. Ford substituted quite a bit, but Forte and Smart played 34 minutes, Brown 33 and Nash 31. It would have been nice had OSU expanded its 23-point halftime lead. Get up 30 and Ford could have cleared the bench earlier. But it didn’t happen.

“I wanted them to get on a run and feel good about themselves and bring them out of the game,” Ford said. “Yes, I under we need to rest them up, but no excuses. They’re 18, 19. Whatever the next game is, there’s no excuses, we need to play. We don’t need to even think about that. Other than get our guys off their feet. But, hey, these guys should be excited about being able to play in another game. So not overly concerned about it. But you gotta pay attention to it.”

* Christien Sager got a basket, a follow shot that pushed OSU’s lead to 60-41 midway through the second half. Sager gives Travis Ford some minutes to help the stars rest, and he plays solid. Nice to see him rewarded with a bucket. Sager finished with four points.

* Fun game for the Cowboys, because everyone got to contribute. Mason Cox and Marek Soucek got to play late. Even Travis Ford’s nephew, walkon Ford Stuen, got in the game in the final minute.

* How different is this OSU team than the Cowboy team that went to Lubbock in early February and lost in the middle of what became a seven-game losing streak?

Tech’s Jaye Crockett: “I wouldn’t say they’re too different. I think it was us. We came in, we weren’t as aggressive as they were. They were just making the physical plays. And we made them when we were at home, we just didn’t seem to make them up here. You just lose at this level. When you’re not the aggressive aggressor, then you kind of slip up and the other team they can score off that. Like I said, with Marcus Smart, he’s aggressive on defense. He gets his team steals and deflections and causes problems for our offense.”

Tubby Smith: “I thought Jaye had a good point. It always takes two. And we weren’t ‑‑ we were at home. We were playing better at the time. By that I mean we were playing with a lot more confidence … we haven’t been playing well. I just know that whatever issues Oklahoma State had, they corrected them. And when you have a great player like Marcus Smart ‑‑ and Travis is a very good coach, he understands what he has to do to get his team turned around, and he did. He got them playing hard. They went to more trapping and pressing, pressing and being more aggressive, and I think that was the key to their turnaround.”

* Twenty-three seasons as a head coach for Tubby Smith. This is his first losing season. Tubby went 14-18 with Tech. But who among us doesn’t think he did a great job? Beat OSU and Texas in Lubbock. Beat OU in Norman. Took Kansas to the wire in Lubbock. The season started with Tech lumped in with TCU at the bottom of the Big 12. The season ended with Tech clearly closer to the pack than to the Horned Frogs.

“It’s been a good year for us,” Tubby said. “I think we’ve got the right people on track. But it’s been a great experience to be here.

“We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas. In order for us to compete in this league, we’ve gotta get better just about in every position. My staff are working hard to recruit good players that I think can compete at this level. Not that the other guys can’t, it’s just it’s been a real challenging process to change and to change the culture and change the attitude about what it takes to be a winning team.”

 

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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