Oklahoma State, like their coach Eddie Sutton, has been known for its veteran presence, disciplined attitude, and tough-minded play.
So it looks a little funny to see the Cowboys in the bottom half of the Big 12 Conference in scoring defense (they were fifth last season) and struggling with more turnovers than assists thus far (they had 103 more assists than turnoversByrin a year ago).
Even more strange is a quick rundown of the roster: Nine players are on the court 9 1/2 minutes or more per game, six are newcomers, three are true freshmen and none are seniors.
Compare that to last year’s team that played six seniors for significant minutes, including all-Big 12 players John Lucas and Joey Graham.
“The last two years we got spoiled with all those veteran ball clubs,” Sutton said. “It’s the youngest team I’ve had, I don’t remember ever starting two freshmen, let alone three.”
Yet that’s exactly what Sutton found himself doing in a 20-point win at Pepperdine Tuesday in the Cowboys final tune-up for this weekend’s Big 12 opener.
Oklahoma State (10-4) and Missouri (7-4) begin conference play at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
Only two Oklahoma State players have previous starting experience, JamesOn Curry (15 career starts) and David Monds (one career start), and Monds hasn’t played the past two games because of a leg injury. He is questionable for the Missouri game.
Curry, on the other hand, has had to be a go-to-guy for Oklahoma State after being a sixth man for much of last year. Curry is second on the team with 13.6 points per game, but endured an early season slump that saw him score only six points in one two-game stretch. The Cowboys lost both of those games, to Gonzaga and Northwestern State.
“He went through a streak where he didn’t play very well, he had trouble with his shooting,” Sutton said. “It seems like he’s got that corrected. The thing I think he’s had to make an adjustment, last year he was surrounded by just so many
veterans and there was no pressure on him really, and this year I think he senses that he is the veteran of our ball club. He is the one that is expected to be the leader and do all the right things, and I think he’s doing that.”
Since scoring 30 against Mercer December 18, Curry has averaged better than 18 points. As North Carolina’s all-time high school scoring leader, Curry isn’t used to many slumps. The prolific shooter easily averaged over 30 points at the prep level, before pledging to attend North Carolina. Tar Heel coach Roy Williams rescinded the scholarship offer after Curry was arrested on drug charges. After a plea bargain in the criminal case, Curry ended up in Stillwater, where he became an integral part of a team that went to last year’s elite eight.
Quin Snyder said even though they’re young, the Cowboys show potential to be a similar squad to last year.
“I’ve always believed in college basketball you win with guards ... I still think they’ve got great guards in (Byron) Eaton and (Jamaal) Brown and Curry,” Snyder said. “From that standpoint I don’t think they’ve changed that much from Lucas and (Daniel) Bobik.”
Eaton, the Cowboys’ points guard, joins Curry in the backcourt. A freshman, Eaton has started all 14 of Oklahoma State’s games. In the same Mercer game Curry went off in, Eaton had 11 assists. Snyder says he’s worried about Eaton’s ability to get into the paint. Eaton’s shot the ball well, 50 percent for the season, showing an ability to get past his defender for close, easy shots.
“He has a lot of confidence for a freshman,” Sutton said. “He certainly at times has displayed glimpses of just being an outstanding basketball player.”
Big 12 play usually means increased physicality, which can be a big adjustment for young players. Sutton has received much publicity the past few years for making his players wear football gear to prep for hard-nosed play. His squad dons shoulder pads and flat-out battles for loose balls and rebounds in practice. Chances are Eaton, a strong running quarterback in high school, will be OK in the Big 12.
“I think he’s tougher than most rookies are,” Sutton said. “We put the shoulder pads and helmets on last week and he had a big grin on his face. He was knocking the crap out of everyone.”
Playing the Cowboys early might prove to be the biggest advantage for the Tigers, who come in having won three straight for the first time all season. Sutton has worked transfers into contenders before, and this year’s junior college transplants are all capable. Mario Boggan, an athletic post presence, leads them in scoring. But it usually takes time, especially with as few experienced players as Oklahoma State has.
“I just don’t want them to put it all together against us,” Snyder said.