Monday night is Eddie Sutton Night at Oklahoma State, a remembrance of a career and a life and some long ago good times. And if there was ever a time for the program to plunge into the warm sand of a happy past, it is now, in a problematic present.
The Cowboys, considered a prime contender in the rugged Big 12 and just last week a top 10 outfit, have lost three of four games. In December, they lost center Michael Cobbins to torn Achilles tendon. There has been time to adjust to that. But on Monday they also lost freshman guard Stevie Clark, booted off the team following his second arrest in just more than a month. This latest arrest came early Sunday for allegedly urinating out of a moving vehicle being driven by someone else, per details released by Stillwater police.
It has gotten so twisted that the preseason All-American and Player of the Year candidate, Marcus Smart, is in a way enduring criticism for trying too much to play like a preseason All-American and Player of the Year candidate. With another top 25 team in Iowa State visiting on Monday, suddenly Oklahoma State (16-5, 4-4 Big 12) seems like another team overcome a bit in conference play, brakes locked as it fishtails off course. The good news is the Big 12 is arguably the best conference in the nation and affords every team plenty of opportunity to get better.
"Hopefully we haven’t hit our stride yet,” coach Travis Ford said on the Big 12 teleconference Monday morning. “We think we can play a whole lot better than we are at this point. We’ve won a couple good games and we’ve not played so well on several occasions. We know we need to play better -- without worrying about what happened in past, and trying to control what we can control as far as the future is concerned.”
This was before the news on Clark came down – at the time, Ford had said a statement was forthcoming. For Clark, a two-time Oklahoma state player of the year averaging 5.3 points and 2.7 assists in 16 games, first came the suspension for a violation of team rules early in the season. And then the arrest for marijuana possession on Jan 1. And then the early Sunday incident for what officially was termed “outraging public decency.”
And still it says something that turning a troubled backup into a memory is almost a side item to a full plate of Oklahoma State issues. First come the Cyclones on Monday and then three of four games on the road, a stretch including games against Texas and Oklahoma. The season ends with Kansas, Kansas State and then a road trip to Iowa State. So psychology class is in session for Ford, in which he will have to convince a beleaguered club that the pain is temporary.
Plenty of coaches dip into that material. Kansas dropped its first league game at Texas on Saturday and, immediately, Jayhawks coach Bill Self assured his team there was more of that to come.
“Last year we started out 7-0 and lost three in a row,” Self said Monday. “It’s certainly not the end of the earth. What you do, you put yourself in a situation where there’s less margin for error, but everything is still possible. Every goal is still attainable. You just have to bow your neck and be better.”
Or Ford can sympathize on the sideline Monday night with Fred Hoiberg, whose Iowa State team has lost four of six, though it is coming off a revitalizing home win over Oklahoma. “The big thing is we’re trying to stay the course,” Hoiberg said. “You look at the schedule we’ve played and the four losses we had this year, those are four great teams. There’s no need to panic. Our conference is unbelievable.”
It’s the No. 1 league in the RPI rankings with five teams in the top 25 and seven in the top 55. The only question is whether Oklahoma State is equipped to take advantage of the springboard offered by each Big 12 game. In the Cowboys' latest three losses, opponents posted effective field goal percentages of 63.6, 53.7 and 62. The Cowboys allowed foes to score a point-per-possession or better in five of the first 15 games; opponents now have hit that mark in five of the last seven.
Ford cited a desire to improve team defense and to understand rotations on Monday morning. And it’s fair to wonder if the absence of an experienced/shot-blocking/rebounding force like Cobbins finally is catching up to the Cowboys.
The upshot is that Smart can shoot the Cowboys back into a groove. He can be that good. But he can’t be good when he’s pressing the issue. In the three-losses-in-four-games skein, the sophomore guard is a ghastly 13-of-52 from the floor, missing 25 of 28 attempts from three-point range. “He’s such a competitor, and he’s been able to make big plays for us on many occasions,” Ford said. “I know there’s been a lot said about his shooting a lot of threes – I’m not a coach who’s going to tell him stop shooting threes.”
It’s deep-breath time for Oklahoma State. With Clark gone, the Cowboys are down a headache but also another rotation player, with no real proven commodities beyond the remaining top six. Nine games into the Big 12, the Cowboys shouldn't be in crisis mode.
“Let’s understand,” Self said Monday, “14-4, 13-5 would be an unbelievable record in this league.” The Big 12 can save Oklahoma State, in a way. But if the Cowboys can't recalibrate their approach quickly, the Big 12 can bury them.