OSU’s basketball team plays at Texas tonight in a game that is fascinating on many fronts. A few questions:
1. How will the Longhorn fans receive the Cowboys?
Will Texas fans go easy on OSU, feel a little empathy for a beleaguered, short-handed team? Will Texas fans, who know about as well as anyone how rough it can be in Lubbock, try to stay classy? Or will they smell blood and see if they can knock the Cowboys off their game even more?
I’ve never found UT basketball games to be terribly inhospitable. But of course, I never found Tech to be that way, either. I mean, when I heard Jeff Orr described as a Tech “superfan,” I almost laughed. I didn’t know Tech had basketball fans of any kind, much less superfans.
2. In which direction will the Cowboys go?
Sometimes, adversity can bring a team together. Sometimes, adversity can make a team rally.
Adversity is a phrase thrown around a lot in sports. The Seahawks talked about adversity after winning the Super Bowl. Adversity is trying to win a Super Bowl without your quarterback, not somebody at NFL Network picking the Broncos to win the game.
True adversity is what OSU is going through. A difficult season, a depleted roster, a losing streak, the three-game suspension of your superstar player. That’s adversity.
Anything might happen in Austin tonight. The Cowboys could get rolled. With only five rotation players left, a little bit of foul trouble would cripple OSU. Fatigue absolutely will be a factor. A score of 88-60 would surprise no one.
On the other hand, if Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash play well, the Cowboys could hang with Texas. Adopt an us-against-the-world mentality, find a resolve and put some pressure on Texas, which is completely expected to win this game.
In fact, this is a game in which maybe the first time all year, the pressure is all on OSU’s opponent. No one expects the Cowboys to win. On the road. Depleted. Ranked foe.
The same as Smart seeming to play with a huge burden upon his shoulders, these Cowboys have been playing like a team bearing a huge responsibility. That burden now is gone, unless the Cowboys keep it upon themselves. But they are at liberty to let it go now. Maybe that will allow OSU to play with a freedom that’s been missing.
3. Schematically, how can the Cowboys perform?
Well, it seems clear to me that Travis Ford is going to have to play mostly zone defense. Ford has got to try to get at least 35 minutes from each of his five starters. Even if he gets that, that’s 25 minutes still allotted to the likes of Christien Sager, Leyton Hammonds, Marek Soucek and Gary Gaskins.
Playing zone would do two things. Zone is a little easier physically. That could help with fatigue. It’s also a way to alleviate foul trouble. Harder to drive against zones, and drives produce fouls.
On offense, as much as he might like to, Ford can’t try to shorten the game. The Cowboys have to play uptempo. With a small lineup, getting Brown and Brian Williams and Nash in the open court is a must. Getting Phil Forte some transition 3-pointers would be a big help. So OSU is still going to have to play uptempo offensively.
4. Where will OSU miss Smart the most?
Defense. Smart’s presence has helped mask, to some degree, OSU’s lack of big men. Smart is a point guard who can, and has, cover power forwards from time to time. He’s a physical presence on the court.
Brown can play point guard. Forte can, too, I suppose, though you don’t want him to. But those guys can’t transform themselves into some kind of physical presence on defense.
The truth is, OSU is going to have to shoot well tonight and try to win with offense.