Oklahoma State’s first season under head coach Brad Underwood has proceeded in odd fashion. The Cowboys entered Big 12 play with a non-conference record of 10-2, which included a nice win on the road at Wichita State. But the adjustment to Big 12 play was not easy, with OSU starting off the conference season losing six straight games.
Underwood’s team eventually turned things around. After starting off league play 0-6, the Cowboys won their next five games (one was a non-conference victory over Arkansas) before finally losing to Baylor by three points on Wednesday night.
The seemingly erratic performance of OSU possibly has a simple explanation. The Cowboys — keyed by the explosive perimeter play of Jawun Evans, Phil Forte, and Jeffrey Carroll — can really put points on the board; in Big 12 games they are averaging 113 points per 100 possessions, which ranks second in the league. But they haven’t defended very well, allowing a league high 114 points per 100 possessions.
In a way, the Cowboys are the perfect mirror image of the Texas Longhorns, who pair the second best defense in the league with the conference’s worst offense. So this potentially makes for an intriguing match-up, in that is puts strength up against strength and weakness versus weakness.
I think it is interesting to consider why Oklahoma State’s defense has struggled during Big 12 games. Almost nothing that has happened in this league that has surprised me more than how few turnovers the Cowboys have forced in Big 12 games. Underwood’s defense is built to create turnovers, and at least in non-league games this season the Cowboys have delivered, forcing non-Big 12 opponents to turn the ball over in a little under 26 percent of their possessions. In league games, opponents are only turning the ball over in 17 percent of their possessions, which means that seven Big 12 teams are forcing turnovers at a higher rate in conference play. This difference between non-conference and Big 12 performance is significant, being worth about 11 points per 100 possessions. If OSU was forcing turnovers at its non-conference rate it would have one of the top defenses in the Big 12, and would be higher up in the conference standings.
So what is going on? I can really only guess. Underwood has used his bench measurably less in Big 12 games, electing to keep his best guys on the floor as long as possible, and it strikes me as somewhat likely that fatigue prevents the Cowboys from playing defense at peak aggressiveness for the full 40 minutes of the game. This also jives with my own observations of the team’s play. With Evans, Forte, and Carroll playing as much as they have been, and being asked to do what they do for the OSU offense, it is probably unreasonable to expect they can stay in the passing lanes in the full out denial defense that Underwood has historically deployed for the entire game.
While the defense is having it’s struggles, the offense is absolutely deadly. In a league of outstanding lead guards, Evans is as good as any of them. The season he is having running the Cowboy offense isn’t really that far off from the season that Kansas’ Frank Mason is having, and Mason is widely considered to be one of the top candidates for the various national player of the year awards. Evans, Forte, and Carroll are all shooting the hell out of the ball, keeping OSU above 40 percent from three-point range this deep into the season. They also draw a ton of fouls and thanks to the nice work of guys like Mitchell Solomon, Leyton Hammonds, Cameron McGriff, Lucas N'Guessan, who get an insane number of extra chances to score on the offensive glass.
On paper this game will really be two games of equal significance that are contested at very different levels. When OSU has the ball the two teams will be at their best, exchanging blows at a high level. And on the other end of the floor things may be quite a bit different.
The game tips at around 3 PM CST in Stillwater, OK, and airs on ESPN2.