STILLWATER – Oklahoma State's loss to Georgia Tech in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament lingers with Travis Ford.
With the Midwest Regional bracket opening up, and No. 5 seed Michigan State representing that quadrant of the bracket in the Final Four, Ford can't help but wonder what might have been if his seventh-seeded Cowboys hadn't played so poorly in Milwaukee.
Sitting down for a postseason chat Monday, Ford talked about last season and next season and about the challenge of replacing James Anderson.
A few highlights:
Q: Do you think this team maximized its potential?
A: “It's an interesting question because probably more than any year in a while, I have had a tough time moving on a little bit. And I have probably hidden it pretty well, but it's bothered me, for the fact that I feel like if we had gotten by that first game, and I knew that first game was going to be tough…
“But I don't think there is any question that we over-achieved. We probably had a better season than we anticipated, especially after Ray Penn went down, to win some of the games we won and to make the NCAA Tournament and to go 9-7 in our league and to do a lot of things with the team we had.
“But for my benefit and the way I coach, and it's different than last year, we did not play enough perfect games for me. And that is not about winning. Last year, I thought we maximized. This team might not have been as good as last year's. I wish we could have played more games like the Kansas game, where we had everybody on the same page.”
How is Ray Penn?
“Ray is good. He went from cast to walking-boot cast, and now he is out of that. He had X-rays last week and what we are looking at: four weeks from playing and getting full-go again. And that is my biggest thing, because I want to get him back on the court for at least two weeks of postseason workouts before we gotta stop and then I won't get to work with him until August of next year. The trainer Jason (Miller), I call him every morning and ask him, ‘How is Ray doing?' Because he is a very important piece to our basketball team right now, a very important piece.”
After OSU got into an NIT rut, your teams have made two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Still, are you pleased but not satisfied?
“I am not satisfied. With any new coach really, it takes some time, and I think it takes three or four or maybe five years to really solidify high expectations maybe, or to start from our end to expecting more. Nothing is good to me unless we win our last game. And that is just the way I am, and that is my personality.
“But I really haven't looked ahead and said, ‘It's only going to be a perfect season if we make it.' I didn't know if we were an NCAA team this year, and I didn't know last year. And the same for next year. It takes time.
“It was a satisfying year, but for me I am not happy unless we are winning them all.”
What is more daunting, replacing Byron Eaton last year or James Anderson this year?
“Whew. They're both tough. Byron did so much for us that we really didn't realize it until we started practice. I knew his points, his experience, but a lot of things we took for granted with Byron, we started realizing our point guards now weren't doing. It was tough.
“We know what we're going to have to replace with James. The scoring. He became our best defender, because he had great size and he started liking to play defense. But with James, it's great to have that what I call the ‘X Factor,' the guy when plays aren't working, you give a guy the ball and let him go score. That's tough to replace. Who's going to take that spot? Do we have somebody? I don't know yet. That's going to be the toughest thing.
“You can count on 20 points a night (with James), not counting all the attention he would draw to him and he would kick to Keiton and guys like that, especially later in the season when he became good at it. But for the fact that you can piece those 22 points together, it was tough to replace Byron creating shots for other guys.
“And the last five minutes of the game, if you were winning, we said, ‘Here Byron, take us home.'”
Looking ahead, with the players returning and rising and the newcomers on the way, could your roster be more versatile?
“If everything goes as we hope and is planned – we all know a lot can change between now and August – we'll no question be more versatile. And no question be deeper. I'm hoping to press a lot more. We'll be twice – if not more – athletic, because of the kids coming in. It could be a lot more versatile team, versatile player wise, but also as a team. A lot of players can play.
“As of right now, there's not the one or two dominant players. I couldn't tell you one starting position next year. Not one. Where I sat here last year, I could have told you James was starting. Keiton (Page) would start. Obi (Muonelo) would start. And I would have said Marshall (Moses), just because of the way he played.
“I was thinking about it the other day, I'm not ready to give anything to any of them. Not one. It should be exciting for some of the guys. None of them are guaranteed anything.”