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Big 12 Basketball: Oklahoma State Rebuilds

Travis Ford is feeling the heat in Stillwater.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

This year will likely be one of transition for Oklahoma State basketball. After entering last season ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 10, the expectations for this year won't be nearly as high.

But they still will be playing out the season in Stillwater. Figuring out just how good the Cowboys will be is tricky. I will tackle this question below, but first let's look back at last season.

An Up and Down Year

Oklahoma State started the season with high expectations, returning Big 12 player of the year Marcus Smart. And at least through the first two months of the season, the Cowboys lived up to those expectations. Travis Ford's squad started the year with a 15-2 record, which included wins against Memphis, Louisiana Tech, and Texas.

But then Oklahoma State hit a rough patch. The Cowboys lost a tight road game against Kansas, beat West Virginia at home, and then went on a seven game losing streak that significantly altered expectations for the year, souring fans on the Travis Ford experience.

I think it is worth going back and taking a look at that seven game streak, going game by game to look for common themes.

Game 1: An 88-76 road loss at Oklahoma, a team that ended up finishing second in the league. Nothing to see here, other than a typical Big 12 experience where the home team ends up shooting 20 more free throws than the visitors get.

Game 2: A more surprising 76-70 home loss against Baylor. Baylor won by going 11-23 from beyond the arc, while OSU was 6-21. Surprise losses often swing on the three point shot.

Game 3: Lost at home by a single point against Iowa State in a wild triple OT game.

Game 4: Lost by four at Texas Tech in the game where Marcus Smart went into the stands to shove a fan. If any one thing was the difference in this game, it was probably the 15 Cowboy turnovers, an uncharacteristic result from a team that was among the nation's best at protecting the rock.

Game 5: OSU was crushed on the road by Texas. Undersized and undermanned during Marcus Smart's suspension, any hope that the Cowboys might have had vanished when Javan Felix went 6-8 from three point range, while OSU sharpshooter Phil Forte was 2-7 from deep.

Game 6: Ford's depleted squad took a three point home loss against OU. During the second game of Smart's suspension, OSU put up a fight at home, but was torched by Buddy Hield and Frank Booker.

Game 7: The Cowboys took Baylor to OT on the road, during the third and final game of the Smart suspension. Not a bad showing, all things considered, as this was a point in the season when Baylor was really starting to play well.

The common theme during that losing streak is that sometimes there aren't any common themes. The first loss was a typical league road loss against a strong opponent. The second loss was a game where OSU lost the three point lottery. Loss number three was against an outstanding team in a game that the Cowboys could have easily won. Loss four could have easily been viewed as a simple case where a team caught a case of the yips on the road; a moderate take on a game became impossible after Smart's journey into the stands. The fifth loss was a beatdown against a team with size -- something the Cowboys lacked. The sixth and seventh losses during the streak were winnable games where Smart would have made a difference, had he not have been suspended.

After that losing streak, the Cowboys finished the year well enough to snag a nine seed in the NCAA tournament. In their single tournament game against Gonzaga they shot the ball poorly, falling 85-77.

Buyers Remorse

After two seasons with Marcus Smart and no NCAA tournament wins to show for it Oklahoma State hoops fans have turned against Travis Ford. The many charges against Ford are listed in this piece at Cowboys Ride for Free. After failing to meet expectations last season, Ford has very little support left among fans. The perception is that he only has retained his job at OSU because he has a very large contract that doesn't expire for a very long time.

Travis Ford took his first head coaching job at a 27 year old. He was hired by Campbellsville University, in the NAIA, which was not a particularly glamorous job. In his first season, Ford went 16-17, but in his next two years the Tigers went 28-3 and 23-11, respectively, earning their first trip to the NAIA tournament in nearly a decade.

Those three years at Campbellsville were good enough to allow Ford to earn his first D-I head coaching gig. Ford moved two hours away to Richmond, Kentucky, where he took over the Eastern Kentucky Colonels.

Taking over EKU wasn't an easy job. The Colonels at that time were the worst team in the Ohio Valley Conference, having finished dead last in the league in three of the previous four seasons. Over the next five seasons, Ford gradually improved EKU. The Colonels were still among the worst team in the league for his first three seasons, but by the 2003-04 season were competing on even footing with their opponents.

And then in the 2004-05 season, everything came together. EKU won 22 games, the highest win total at that point in its 57 year history in Division I. The Colonels finished second in the OVC regular season, and won the conference tournament, earning their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1979.

After the season, Travis Ford took the head coaching job at UMass, a program that had struggled since John Calipari left for the NBA nine years earlier. Ford followed a pattern he had established at his previous head coaching stops. His first season was unspectacular. The Minutemen went 8-8 in the Atlantic Ten, and 13-15 overall. But the next two seasons were better, with UMass finishing in a tie for first place during regular season A-10 play, and following that season up with a third place finish in the league and a trip to the NIT championship game.

In the spring of 2008, Sean Sutton was forced out as head coach at Oklahoma State. After some initial rumors that the Cowboys would steal OSU alumnus Bill Self from Kansas (yea, right), Oklahoma State instead settled on the up-and-coming Ford.

In Travis Ford's six seasons in Stillwater, he has a 125-77 record, with four trips to the NCAA tournament. He is already third on the all time wins list at Oklahoma State -- a fact that says more about how poorly Oklahoma State has faired when it has not been coached by Hank Iba or Eddie Sutton than it does about anything else. Note that Ford will likely need at least another ten years to catch Sutton on the all time Oklahoma State wins list, and another 25 or so to catch Iba. I am betting that neither of these things happen.

When OSU fans call for the Ford's dismissal, they aren't viewing Ford's record in this way. The Cowboys clearly have underperformed relative to expectations in the last two seasons. When we combine that with the fact that Ford only has one NCAA tournament victory since coming to Stillwater, I understand why he has come under fire, even if I am not so sure that the intensity of  that fire is justified.

I am a frequent critic of how we evaluate coaches, and worry about how large of a role a team's performance relative to expectations takes in these evaluations. Because those expectations ultimately shouldn't matter. What should matter, at least for a coach with a long enough track record, are the actual results, with expectations totally removed from the evaluation. Context should matter, buy expectations should not.

So if we remove expectations from the evaluation,  does it affect how you evaluate Ford?

I would also like to point out that while it is easy in our modern Internet message board culture to declare that Travis Ford isn't much of a coach, that sort of claim isn't supported by the fact that Ford has a strong track record of success at four different schools.

Next Season Looks Difficult

While I have just spent 12 paragraphs defending Ford's head coaching record, it is important not to confuse that with optimism for the Cowboys upcoming season. Because I am not optimistic.

After last season, Marcus Smart went to the NBA. That was no surprise; the Cowboys were lucky to hang on to Smart as long as they did.

But the Cowboys lost more than just Smart. Markel Brown was a senior last year (he has signed with the Brooklyn Nets), while Kamari Murphy and Brian Williams both transferred out of the program. The only returning players of note are Le'Bryan Nash, Phil Forte, and Michael Cobbins.

Cobbins was an important anchor for the OSU defense last season, prior to tearing his Achilles tendon. His recovery from this injury will be important for Ford.

Nash will be a senior this coming season, and the talented forward has improved every year. Dropping the three point shot from his arsenal last season was a significant improvement; Nash is a career 23 percent shooter from beyond the arc. He will be asked to take a bigger role in the offense this season, something that he hasn't done since his freshman year.

Phil Forte is among the most dangerous perimeter shooters in the country. In his NCAA career to date, he has been strictly a catch-and-shoot player. Without Smart and Brown breaking down the defense off the dribble, I fully expect that Ford will run more off-ball screening action to free up Forte this year, in much the same way that Ford used to set things up for Keiton Page. Anything that gets open looks for Forte is good offense in my view.

Thankfully for OSU, former LSU point guard Anthony Hickey will be eligible to play right away. Hickey is a pass-first guard with a decent outside shot. He takes care of the ball, and can be a real pest on defense.

To fill out the roster, Ford has brought in two junior college transfers -- 6-2 guard Jeff Newberry and 7-1 shot blocker Anthony Allen -- as well as a four man freshman class. Of those freshmen, the most likely to contribute right away is 6-6 wing Joe Burton out of Humble, Texas. Burton was listed in the ESPN top 100. While online highlight videos can be hard to generalize, Burton's show a nice mix of skill, athleticism, and shooting ability.

Looking ahead to the coming season, the question for OSU is this: how will a team with a Hickey/Forte/Newberry backcourt and a frontcourt of Nash/Cobbins/Allen/Burton stack up against the rest of the league?

Against the top of the league -- which includes in some order Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State, Kansas State, and Baylor -- the Cowboys seem likely to struggle. There are sure to be some nights where Forte bags eight 3s and keeps the Cowboys in the game all by himself, but right now it looks like OSU won't have the players to compete with the top teams in the league.


There is still some talent left in Stillwater,  but not as much as there has been in the last two  years. As a result, I don't expect a lot out of Oklahoma State this season. I expect that they will play hard and defend. I expect that they will probably be better than TCU, Texas Tech, and West Virginia. But I don't think they will be much better than that.

In case you missed it, this series has previously examined TCU and Texas Tech.