By Jon Rothstein
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Travis Ford was being sincere.
He’s yet to watch Marcus Smart score a point or hand out an assist in a college game — but he genuinely loves everything about his freshman point guard.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever been around in terms of making people around him better,” Ford said of Smart. “He doesn’t just make people better by getting them shots. He does it by talking. He’s extremely vocal for a freshman.”
Smart is the primary reason why Oklahoma State has generated more offseason buzz than any other team in the Big 12. The Cowboys won seven conference games last year and finished with an overall record of 15-18. Now with Smart in the fold, Oklahoma State has upgraded their back court and the rest of America is taking notice. The Cowboys left this week on a foreign trip to Spain where they’ll play several exhibition games.
“It’s always good to hear positive things,” Ford said. “We hope some of the things people are talking about come true. There’s a reason for the positivity. We bring back a lot of guys that got valuable experience last year and we’ve got some really mature freshmen.”
Smart should be one of the better first year guards in America next season and that alone should make the Cowboys a legitimate contender to return to the NCAA Tournament. The rest of the potential starting lineup though is somewhat unconventional.
With no legitimate post presence on the roster, Ford plans to use multiple skilled perimeter players at once in an effort keep defenses on their heels on a regular basis.
Between Smart, Markel Brown, and veteran wings Le’Bryan Nash and J.P. Olukemi, Ford has a group that should be able to score the ball at will each and every time they take the floor.
“We can put five guys on the floor 6-4 or better,” Ford said. “Markel (Brown) is one of the more athletic players in America and would play two guard for us if we had a game tomorrow. Le’Bryan Nash has a much better understanding of what it takes to win at this level and he’s got something to prove. There’s a chip on his shoulder now, and J.P. Olukemi just has to be more consistent. We’re not going to be the biggest team out there, but we’re going to be really long and tough to match up with.”
Ford is also high on two of his freshmen, Brooklyn native Kamari Murphy and sharp shooter Phil Forte, who was a teammate of Smart’s in high school.
“Kamari is a guy right now that’s going to be tough to keep off the floor,” Ford said of the 6-9 Murphy. “He’s a perfect fit for how we play and Phil Forte has been really impressive. He can knock down shots with range. You can’t help off of him defensively because he’s going to make you pay. He’s also been a really good defender.”
A pair of undersized forwards, Brian Williams and Michael Cobbins could be two of the more pivotal players on the Cowboys’ roster. With 6-11 big man Philip Jurick suspended indefinitely, Williams and Cobbins could be this team’s best two interior rebounders.
As a freshman, Cobbins averaged over seven rebounds per game in Big 12 play.
“He’s just got to keep getting stronger,” Ford said of the 6-8, 220 pound Cobbins. “He’s going to have to do all the little things for us and he’s ok with that. He’s got experience and he’s going to be a captain for us. Brian Williams is also going to play some undersized power forward for us. Through 10 days of practice, Brian might actually be our best player thus far.”
The pieces are in place for Oklahoma State to put massive amounts of points on the board on a nightly basis. Olukemi and Brown are capable of going for 20 plus and after a somewhat disappointing freshman season, Nash seems ready to explode as a sophomore after averaging 13.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game during his first year of college basketball.
Still, the key to this team will be Smart. Even though he’s never played a game yet at the collegiate level, Ford is bullish on this kid and well aware that Smart’s biggest addition to the Cowboys could be where this team needs help the most — on the backboards.
“Last year we were one of the worst rebounding teams in the country,” Ford said. “If you plug Marcus (Smart) into our starting lineup, we immediately become a much better rebounding team. We’re aware of that and we know rebounding is a concern. If you can’t rebound, you can’t win.”
Do you think Oklahoma State has the goods — on paper — to make the tourney? Be heard in the comments below!