Even though Eddie Sutton has won 315 games as coach of Oklahoma State, this year’s team might be his best.
Sutton has the No. 6 Cowboys at the top of the Big 12 Conference and in position to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“They’re just tough to match up (with),” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “They scored from every position, and in addition to that, I think they really play well together. They’re a fun team to watch because of (their chemistry).”
When Missouri hosts the Cowboys at 7 tonight at Hearnes Center, it will be difficult for the Tigers (13-10, 7-5 Big 12) to continue their four-game winning streak.
The Big 12 coaches picked the Cowboys (21-2, 11-1) to finish fifth in the preseason poll, but their better-than-predicted play hasn’t come as a surprise to Snyder. Snyder said he put them fifth because he didn’t know much about the Cowboys before the season.
“I didn’t know (Joey) Graham; I didn’t know (Daniel) Bobik,” Snyder said. “To me, their team quickness is unusual. Across five players, not just on the perimeter, even their interior guys are incredibly quick laterally and out in transition.”
Sutton has combined the newcomers, such as Graham and Bobik, along with junior guard John Lucas, who transferred from Baylor before the season, into a team that scores nearly 17 per game more than its opponents.
The Cowboys also shoot a Big 12-best 52 percent.
Graham, a transfer from Central Florida, scored 36 points in the Cowboys’ 87-83 overtime win against Nebraska on Saturday. The performance earned him the Big 12 Rookie of the Week Award on Monday.
Bobik is a transfer from Brigham Young and ranks third in the Big 12 in 3-point field goals at 48 percent.
Despite coming from different backgrounds, the Cowboys have adapted to each other, Sutton’s coaching and the Cowboys style of play.
“From top to bottom, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a group of young men that’s been any better as far as having their priorities right,” Sutton said. “They’re all good students. They’re all good listeners, very coachable.
“They all understand their roles. They all like each other. I think that’s one reason this team has really blended and has good chemistry.”
Lucas, who has received some consideration for Big 12 Player of the Year, has taken the role of playmaker. He ranks second in the Big 12 with 4.8 assists per game, but Lucas also scores. Lucas had 21 points in the Cowboys’ 80-60 win against Kansas on Feb. 9. He is second on the team with 14.4 per game.
“I think he has certainly been a catalyst,” Snyder said. “Certainly, he has given them a lift. To me, what’s most impressive about him outside of the numbers is his competitiveness. He’s a great competitor, and I think that’s how their team plays.”
Even though Lucas and senior Tony Allen lead the Cowboys dynamic offense, Sutton said the team has relied upon senior Ivan McFarlin to do the dirty work. Sutton said McFarlin’s unheralded interior defense has held the team together. McFarlin leads the team in rebounding with 6.5 per game and blocked shots with 1.6 per game.
McFarlin, at 6 feet 8, 232 pounds, lacks the size of the Tigers’ big men, though, and should be a player the Tigers try to score on. Tigers center Arthur Johnson is 6-9, 250.
“If (the Missouri big men) can keep themselves in the game by being disciplined defensively and not making silly fouls, that’s certainly an area you point to,” Snyder said. “Our size and bulk versus their quickness.”
Despite the Cowboys success this season, victories in Hearnes Center have never come easily to Sutton and his team. As Oklahoma State coach, Sutton is 2-8 in Columbia. Before reaching the Final Four in 1995, the Cowboys lost 81-79 on Feb. 11, 1995, in Columbia.
In their most recent trip to Hearnes Center, Missouri held on for a 72-69 win Feb. 25, 2002.
The Tigers have won 41 of 47 home games against Oklahoma State, but this season, the Cowboys are the hottest team in the Big 12, having won 11 in a row.
During the Tigers’ winning streak, a different player has taken the lead role in every game.
Senior forward Travon Bryant played well in the 77-65 win against Colorado on Feb. 10, making 5-of-7 shots. Against UNLV on Feb. 15, Johnson and freshman guard Thomas Gardner had more than 20 points eachin the 94-60 win.
Sophomore guard Jimmy McKinney produced one of his best performances of the season with 21 points and six rebounds in the 82-70 against Iowa State on Wednesday.
Against Baylor on Saturday, junior guard Jason Conley had a season-high 24 points in the 70-66 road win.
“This is just a piece of the pie,” Conley said. “We have a long way to go, and we know that. The reason why we did so well and finished up strong was because we approached this game as if it was our last.”
Continuing the winning trend, though, will require an effort better than the effort produced against Baylor.
“We’re going to have to play our best basketball to win,” senior guard Josh Kroenke said. “I think we’re going to have to have a strong will if we’re going to persevere and win.”