Since CBS, NBC and ABC weren't able to find their way to Stillwater this season, this week's Big Eight tournament in Kansas City will provide the nation's hoops fans with their first real opportunity to check out Oklahoma State. An unlikely bunch of players has put Cowboy basketball back on the map while posing some intriguing questions: Is coach Eddie Sutton really a new man or just the same old con man? Could senior center Johnny Pittman be the worst free throw shooter in NCAA history? And does Byron Houston, the Cowboys' dynamic junior, really deserve his reputation as the league's most vicious hit man?
The Cowboys, who haven't been much of a factor on the national scene since winning back-to-back national titles in 1944-45 and '45-46, are the most engaging team in a weird Big Eight season. Last Saturday, Oklahoma State dropped a 68-67 heartbreaker to Iowa State in Ames and fell to 10-4 in conference play. The defeat opened the way for Kansas, another team of overachievers, to take the conference title outright if it could beat Nebraska on Sunday afternoon in Lincoln. But the Jayhawks also faltered, committing 20 turnovers against the Cornhuskers in the first half and missing eight straight free throws down the stretch, to lose 85-75 and also finish the regular season with a 10-4 league mark.
The mood in Lawrence in 1990-91 has been surprisingly giddy, considering that 6'9" senior center Mark Randall was the only starter returning from last season's 30-5 Jayhawk team, but no more so than in Stillwater. After all, Oklahoma State hadn't won a league title since 1965, when Henry Iba was still five years away from the end of his historic 36-year coaching career with the Cowboys. Now, with a surprising 21-6 regular-season record, Oklahoma State is all but assured of its second trip to the NCAA tournamanent in 26 years.
Still, neither the Cowboys nor the 21-6 Jayhawks are strong enough to be more than cautiously optimistic about their chances in the league tournament, not to mention the NCAAs. While in recent years such traditional Big Eight powers as Oklahoma and Missouri have been regulars among the nation's elite, the 1990-91 conference season was characterized by a parity that even reached Run It Up U, where Sooner coach Billy Tubbs's perennial gusher of talent finally ran dry. Oklahoma, with four league titles in the last eight years, dropped to seventh in the final conference standings. "All those teams that are beating our tails now had better enjoy it," says Tubbs, "because we will be back."
Even so, Oklahoma (16-13) and Colorado (15-12) are hoping to earn the conference's fourth NCAA bid (Kansas, Oklahoma State and Nebraska are near locks for the 64-team field) if they perform impressively in Kansas City. But the spoiler could be fourth-place Missouri, which is ineligible for the NCAAs because it is on probation. The Tigers remain dangerous because of 6'10" senior forward Doug Smith and junior guard Anthony Peeler.
"In the past," says Kansas forward Mike Maddox, a 6'7" senior and the last survivor of the Jayhawks' 1988 NCAA championship team, "the league always had a couple of teams that weren't as good as the others. But this year you knew it was going to be a struggle every game from beginning to end."
The 1989-90 Kansas team, which was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation for 13 consecutive weeks between December 1989 and March 1990, finally ran out of gas against UCLA in the second round of the NCAAs. Coach Roy Williams, who has posted a glittering 71-23 record in his three seasons in Lawrence, took the loss hard because he felt the Jayhawks were good enough to go all the way. He had put the pain behind him by the time the current team opened practice on Oct. 15. By then, Williams knew that his challenge was to create a deeper squad, one built for the long run. His main tasks were to establish 5'11" sophomore Adonis Jordan at point guard and nurture three standout freshmen—6'6" forward Richard Scott and two guards, 6'8" Patrick Richey and 6'4" Steve Woodberry.
The Jayhawks eventually developed an identity, based on their strongest asset: the depth that Williams had sought from the outset. He always has a fresh team on the floor (no player averages more than 29 minutes a game), which is vital to the Jayhawks' frenetic style. They try to get most of their points by creating turnovers with a relentless defensive press or with the fast break. When they have to set up their half-court offense, Jordan does an excellent job of getting the ball inside to the ever-hustling Randall or on the wing to Terry Brown, the three-point specialist.
"One day an NBA scout came by to see Mark," says Williams. "He told me that he could see Mark playing in the pros, but that he didn't like any of my other players. 'AH you do is win,' he said. I took that as a compliment."
Randall, an emotional player, was teary-eyed on Feb. 26 during pregame introductions at his last home game. He then went out with 26 points and 10 rebounds as the Jayhawks beat Iowa State 88-57. On Sunday in Lincoln, he closed out his career with 17 points and 12 boards.
The emotions in Stillwater stem from a strong sense of family. That began when Sutton played guard for Iba from 1955-56 to 1957-58, and then embarked on a coaching career that was successful at every stop until the nasty scandal at Kentucky in 1989 put the Wildcats on NCAA probation and put Sutton out of work.
He spent a year out of coaching before going after the Oklahoma State job last spring. The position had been vacated by former Kentucky assistant Leonard Hamilton, who left his rebuilding program in Stillwater to take on the same task at the University of Miami. Sutton admitted to Oklahoma State officials that his difficulties at Kentucky included alcohol abuse. (He had already sought treatment.) He also convinced them that when it came to the NCAA charges against Kentucky—they included academic fraud and payments to the father of recruit Chris Mills, now at Arizona—he had gotten a bum rap. In truth, Sutton was at least guilty of extreme neglect at Kentucky. Yet his powers of persuasion, along with the support of Iba and Sutton's 430-164 career record, got him the Oklahoma State job.
In Stillwater, Sutton inherited some frustrated, but talented, players—including the multitalented Houston, three other starters from last season's 17-14 team and a late-blooming giant in the seven-foot Pittman—who simply needed an extra push to fulfill their potential. To this group Sutton added his son Sean, who had been his starting point guard at Kentucky two years ago.
Since Sutton's arrival, Pittman has slimmed down from 285 pounds to 250, which has helped improve his endurance and quickness. Now, he holds his own in the pivot—except when it comes to free throw shooting. A career 54% foul shooter heading into this year, Pittman converted just over 25% from the line in 1990-91. Guess who doesn't dare touch the ball in the final minutes of close games?
Pittman's foul shooting is so bad that Oklahoma State students often put their hands together and hold them overhead, as if in prayer, when he steps to the line. This doesn't bother Pittman as much as the idea that he can't find a stroke that works. He recently reverted to a one-handed, tilting-to-the-right stance that makes him resemble a shot-putter.
"I've tried everything," he said after missing six of eight from the line in the Cowboys' 80-69 victory over Nebraska on Feb. 27. "I get a lot of advice, mostly from people who never played the game. I don't know what's wrong."
Otherwise, it has been a terrific winter in Stillwater. Sean, who improved his outside shooting in his year on the sidelines, deftly runs the half-court offense and the active man-to-man defense that has served his father so well over the years. And the Cowboys have responded to the crowds that have turned 6,381-seat Gallagher-Iba Arena into a frenzied zoo by going 14-0 at home, sparing themselves the punishment that Sutton had promised at the start of practice last October.
"He told us that if we lost at home, we would have to come in at 5 a.m. the next day and run five miles," says Sean. "I guess we can put our running shoes back on the rack, at least until next season."
That's the kind of work ethic Sutton learned from Iba, 86, who still shows up for Cowboy home games and an occasional practice. On the first day of workouts last fall, when Sutton told his old coach that he was going to have a three-a-day practice session in his honor, Iba snapped, "Good—but make it four."
Iba won 655 games while coaching Oklahoma State from 1934 through 1970, but he never had a player quite like the 6'7", 235-pound Houston, who this season became the third player in Big Eight history to collect at least 1,000 points, 700 rebounds, 150 blocks, 100 steals and 100 assists in a career. However, Houston isn't widely admired around the league because of a wrecking-ball playing style that some observers view as borderline dirty. Rumor has it that floating around the league office is a bootleg videotape known as Byron's Greatest Hits. Naturally, Sutton defends his wide-body star.
"Byron is fouled much more than he fouls," Sutton says. "He's on everybody's hit list. He's still, quite honestly, living down his reputation to a degree. In the past he's probably done some things that were dirty. But I've tried to teach him to channel his energy in a positive manner."
Houston maintained his composure in the Cowboys' Feb. 19 win at Kansas State when most players might have exploded. He was slugged from behind by Wildcat forward Wilie Howard, who had taken an elbow from Houston as the two players jostled in the paint. Houston then cocked his right arm but backed away. After viewing a replay of the incident on an ESPN monitor, officials called an intentional foul on Houston. Howard, however, was tagged with a flagrant foul and ejected.
Another incident was foremost in everybody's mind before Saturday's game in Ames. It occurred during the Cowboys' 83-62 win over Iowa State in Stillwater on Feb. 6, when Houston and the Cyclones' Paul Doerrfeld collided in a rebound battle. Doerrfeld hit the floor and was out cold for several seconds. Sutton later said taped replays showed that Doerrfeld was hit by one of Houston's massive shoulders, not an elbow, and that he lost consciousness because he hit his head on the floor. Iowa State coach Johnny Orr wasn't convinced, as he showed on Feb. 25 during a telephone press conference.
"[Houston] knocked Doerrfeld out of the game," said Orr. "If that happens here, you're going to see the darndest riot you ever saw in college basketball."
Fortunately, Orr's remarks seemed forgotten during Saturday's game. Houston had a typical effort: a game-high 24 points to go with nine rebounds, six assists, one blocked shot and two steals. The Cowboys led by as many as 14 points in the first half but allowed the Cyclones to creep back to 63-57 with 3:33 to play. Then, amazingly, the home team went on an 11-0 run that put the Cowboys into shock.
"We got rattled late in the game," said Sutton. "Down the stretch, we were watching the clock. We were trying to keep from losing instead of trying to win. This was a tough loss, but we still have a lot we can accomplish."
The Oklahoma State pep band often celebrates victories by serenading the visitors with the old Roy Rogers theme, Happy Trails. This week the trails all lead to Kansas City, where the Cowboys will be eager to show everyone, particularly Kansas, that championship-caliber basketball has finally returned to Stillwater.