For all of the chatter All-America Marcus Smart generated last April, when he decided to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft, his coach, Travis Ford, has been more impressed by Smart's decision making at the point guard position. That's why Ford is giving his 6' 4", 220-pound sophomore free rein with the Cowboys' fast-moving offense. Think Peyton Manning in hightops. "He's calling plays, he's making changes on the fly, he's deciding how to get the ball to a guy who's hot or slow it down depending on time and score," Ford says. "I'm giving him more freedom than I've given any player in my 17 years as a head coach."
That's a high level of trust for a guy who never played the point before coming to Stillwater last fall, and it reflects Smart's innate leadership ability as much as his prodigious talent. Joining him are two other all-conference candidates in guard Markel Brown, a 6' 3" jumping jack and the team's lone scholarship senior, and Le'Bryan Nash, a 6' 7" junior forward. That means Oklahoma State has the league's top three returning scorers. "I was real close to leaving, but I knew if I came back we would have a chance to make history," Smart says.
Oklahoma State's chances of reaching the Final Four will hinge largely on the degree to which Nash has matured. The former McDonald's All-American came to Stillwater as a heralded recruit, but he has treated his time on the court too much like an NBA audition, firing ill-conceived three-pointers (making just 23.7%) instead of establishing himself in the paint. "We need him to rebound better and continue to get to the foul line," Ford says. "When he's playing to his strengths, he can be a real mismatch."
With Smart running the show, this team seems destined to make a deep tournament run. Remember that the 2014 Final Four will be held in Irving, Texas. Isn't that where Cowboys play?
The Cowboys' biggest tests during the nonconference season will occur Thanksgiving Week at the Old Spice Classic in Kissimmee, Fla. That event includes a non-bracketed home game against Memphis on Nov. 19 and a first-round game against Purdue on Nov. 28. Oklahoma State will also play Colorado in Las Vegas in late December, but beyond that the tilts against Kansas—in Lawrence on Jan. 18, in Stillwater on March 1, and hopefully at the Big 12 tournament in wheretk—will draw lots of national attention.
Ford calls Williams' sophomore season "a waste. We talk as if he didn't play last year." After a promising freshman season in which he started 20 games, Williams broke his wrist on the third day of practice and did not rejoin the team until mid-January. With only three days of practice under his belt, Ford threw Williams to the wolves in league play, and he was a shadow of his former self. Now, Williams returns as the team's best perimeter defender, and his speed and athleticism will enable Ford to turn up the defensive pressure in hopes of igniting the Cowboys' running game. Williams is not an offensive star like Smart, Brown or Nash, but he is a high-energy glue guy who can guard multiple positions.
Q&A with Head Coach Travis Ford
SI.com: What did you think of Marcus Smart's statement that Andrew Wiggins hasn't proved himself yet? A little motivation, maybe?
Ford: I don't think so. Marcus is so self-motivated, I don't know if he needs something like that to get him going. If anything, I thought he was trying to protect Wiggins a little bit. He was saying give the guy a chance to go out and prove it.
SI.com: Expectations are higher in Stillwater than they've been than in many years, maybe many decades. Worried?
Ford: That's what you want. You want that every year. What our players have to remember is that we are unproven. We had big moments last year, especially the win at Kansas, but we didn't play well in the Big 12 tournament or the NCAA tourmament. We have to be humble enough to back up the expectations.