Ridin' Roughshod

Oklahoma State's Byron Houston ramrodded the Cowboys to the NIT title
December 09, 1991

It is said that there are eight million stories in the Naked City. Last week it seemed as if there were at least that many floating around Madison Square Garden, where the semifinal and final games of the preseason National Invitation Tournament were played. If Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who is from the Bronx, wasn't talking about how, as a kid, he used to sneak into the Garden, then Texas coach Tom Ponders, who grew up in Stratford. Conn., and later coached at Columbia and Fordham, was recalling that his childhood reward for a good report card was a trip to Manhattan for the NIT. They spoke so fondly of their New York days that it would have only mildly surprised observers had the two coaches ditched the tournament, grabbed a cab and headed uptown to Runyon's, one of their favorite watering holes.

Then there were two of the tournament's prized freshmen, Texas guard Terrence Rencher and Pittsburgh forward Orlando Antigua, former teammates at St. Raymond's High School in the Bronx. With Antigua and freshman guard Jerry McCullough of Rice High School in Harlem on his roster. Pitt coach Paul Evans's biggest recruiting expense last year may have been for subway tokens.

The only one of the four teams at the NIT without obvious New York City roots was Oklahoma State. In fact the Cowboys' center, 7-foot freshman Bryant Reeves, represented the other end of the spectrum. Bryant is from Gans, Okla., a metropolis of some 350 residents. "We told him he needed to go to the city to get better competition over the summer." says Cowboy assistant Rob Evans. "We were thinking Tulsa or Oklahoma City. He went to Sallisaw, which has about 450 people in it."

Yet Reeves and his teammates appeared to be more at home in the Big Apple than their opponents. That may be because Oklahoma State shares what many New Yorkers consider to be some of their best qualities: The Cowboys are pushy when they need to be, know how to live by their wits and possess a certain rough-and-tumble charm. It was only logical, then, that they thumped Georgia Tech 78-71 in the final last Friday and took the NIT championship trophy home to Stillwater, along with the confidence that comes with being a success in New York. "If we can make it here, we can make it anywhere." said Byron Houston. Oklahoma State's powerful senior forward. Somebody had to say it.

The NIT is a little like the New Hampshire presidential primary: It guarantees nothing, confirms a few theories and creak's a few more. This year's tournament didn't exactly capture the hearts and minds of the city; the Garden was a bit more than half full, with 10,865 spectators, for the championship game. Nonetheless, there were conclusions to be drawn. Among them is that freshman point guard Travis Best, who arrived at Georgia Tech from Springfield. Mass., amid much fanfare, doesn't yet handle the reins for the Yellow Jackets as gracefully as he handles questions about how difficult it is to replace All-America Kenny Anderson. Also, the Big East coaches who picked Pitt to finish seventh in the conference might want to reconsider their vote. To get to New York, the Panthers knocked off NIT favorite Kentucky in a second-round game in Lexington, where the Wildcats had won 22 consecutive games. Once at the Garden, Pitt gave a good accounting of itself.

But more than anything else, the NIT proved that the Final Four is a realistic goal for Oklahoma State. If the Cowboys get to Minneapolis, site of the 1992 NCAA championship, it will be largely because of the 6'7", 250-pound Houston, who earned the Most Valuable Player award last week with a performance that was equal parts steel and velvet. Houston, who averaged 26.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in Oklahoma State's two outings in New York, is a man of many talents. He's strong enough to send an opponent crashing to the floor with a flick of a forearm, as he did Pittsburgh's 6'10", 235-pound center, Darren Morningstar, in the semifinals. He's agile enough to give a pump fake and drive to the basket for a soft layup, as he did against Georgia Tech's 7'1" center, Matt Geiger, in the final. And he has enough range as a shooter to make five of six three-point attempts, as he did in his 34-point, 15-rebound performance against the Panthers. "If there's something that Byron can't do, I haven't found it yet," says Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton. "There's a misconception that he's only an inside player."

Houston's bruised opponents wouldn't describe him so benignly. Even Houston has acknowledged his reputation as a dirty player and says he earned it while trying to establish his turf at Oklahoma State. "When I was a freshman, I'd throw an elbow or try to trip you in a quick second," he says. "I came in trying to get people to fear me. I had my head shaved to help me intimidate people, and it all worked. But I've changed. Now people do more to me than I do to them."

Houston would have a hard time convincing others of that, partly because in style and demeanor he could pass for Mike Tyson's taller brother. He has an incongruously high voice, similar to Tyson's, and he shares with Tyson a taste for physical contact. The mention of a crushing pick he set on Friday, a move that nearly folded Georgia Tech guard Jon Barry like an accordion, brought a high-pitched giggle from Houston. "When the guy's teammates don't let him know there's a pick, I know he's going to get crunched." Houston said. "Then the guy will look at me out of the corner of his eye, a little dazed, you know? When I see that, I can't help but smile. It's a little bit funny."

Houston finds no humor in his early childhood in Kansas City, Kans., where he was, by his own description, "a true juvenile delinquent. I got sent home from school every other day. I had a major shoplifting operation going. We would tie firecrackers on cats."

Houston found more constructive outlets for his energy after his family moved to Del City, an Oklahoma City suburb, when he was in junior high. He also began to grow into the chiseled specimen he is today. Houston regularly outlifts OSU linebackers in the weight room, and he keeps up his strength with prodigious amounts of food. The Cowboys left New York still talking about the "snack" Houston downed after their 74-63 semifinal victory over Pitt: a Quarter Pounder with cheese, a Big Mac, two cheeseburgers, two hamburgers and a large fries.

While Houston supplied the muscle that the Cowboys needed to win, senior guard Scan Sutton, the coach's son, provided most of the guile. Physically, the 6'1", 185-pound Sutton is Houston's opposite, and he plays with a scurrying, almost sneaky style that belies his toughness. After Georgia Tech cut an 18-point Oklahoma State lead to four in the second half of the final, it was a driving three-point play by Sutton that helped the Cowboys hold on down the stretch. "Sean brings us stability," says Houston. "Even in pickup games over the summer, he would settle his team down, get it under control. He seems to do what Coach Sutton wants even before Coach can ask. It must be one of those father-son things."

The younger Sutton is representative of Houston's supporting cast at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys may not be aesthetically pleasing, especially in those hideous black hightop sneakers that are spreading through basketball like a fungus—probably the worst fashion trend since the advent of culottes—but the team has a way of keeping opponents from finding their rhythm. Houston's banging inside, along with the perimeter defense of guards Sutton and Darwyn Alexander and forward Cornell Hatcher, helped turn both of Oklahoma State's victories into disjointed affairs. "They just have a way of making you look bad," says Cremins.

It was something of a surprise that the Cowboys were so effective against Georgia Tech, because the Yellow Jackets had looked so smooth in their 120-107 semifinal win over Texas. The Longhorns, who have a quick, talented pair of guards in Rencher and sophomore B.J. Tyler, are fast but small, and they didn't have the inside strength or height to handle Tech's Geiger (25 points) and 6'11" forward Malcolm Mackey (28 points).

Texas will be even more undersized if their leading scorer, 6'8" senior forward Dexter Cambridge, who scored 23 points against Georgia Tech and manhandled Pitt for 24 points and 18 rebounds in a 91-87 loss to the Panthers in the consolation game, loses his eligibility. In early November, Cambridge was declared ineligible by the university while the NCAA investigated the possibility that he had accepted money from a booster two years ago while attending Lon Morris Junior College in Jacksonville, Texas. (Morris and Texas deny any connection to the booster, and Cambridge has said he committed no violation.) On Nov. 20, Cambridge obtained a temporary restraining order from a district court judge that allowed him to play until Dec. 3. Cambridge's status after that date is uncertain.

If the Longhorns lose Cambridge, Penders can turn to his pal Cremins for advice on adjusting to life without a star. Last year Cremins prepared for the loss of Anderson to the NBA after his sophomore season by recruiting Best, a 5'11" dervish from basketball's birthplace who scored 81 points in a game as a high school senior. There's no question that the Yellow Jackets haven't yet seen the best of Best. He played in the early rounds of the tournament with his left hand wrapped because of floor burns, and he was nearly forced to miss the trip to New York when he became ill with the flu, strep throat and a 102° fever.

Cremins rested Best as much as he could against Texas, but when the Longhorns made one last run down the stretch, Cremins turned to Best and said, "We can't win without you." Best reentered the game and hit two three-pointers to help the Yellow Jackets hang on.

Things didn't turn out as well against Oklahoma State. Best had his moments, dealing out nine assists and hitting three of four treys, but overall, Sutton and the rest of the Cowboy backcourt got the better of Best and Barry, who shot a combined 8 for 22 from the floor. The early line on Best remains that he is not as dynamic as Anderson; where Anderson was cocky and self-assured, Best is unassuming and eager to please. "The biggest difference between them is that Travis listens to me a little better than Kenny did," Cremins says. "Kenny would say, 'Yeah, Coach. Yeah, Coach,' and then do his own thing. Travis tries to stick to my instructions a little more. Right now he's a little tentative, but once he feels comfortable with the system, you'll see Travis Best start to do his thing."

Cremins tries to avoid mentioning Anderson's name when he talks about Best, though Best doesn't seem to mind the comparisons. "If I didn't want to answer questions about that, I wouldn't have come to Georgia Tech," Best says. "Besides, Kenny's been a big help to me. He told me that college players would be bigger and stronger than the ones I was used to playing against. He must have been talking about Byron Houston."

Houston was the dominant figure at the NIT, but the Suttons were perhaps the most gratified. Oklahoma State won the trophy, which Kentucky was expected to win, and that was no small irony. In 1989 Sutton the coach resigned in disgrace from Kentucky after a scandal involving player payments and accusations of academic fraud landed the Wildcats on three-year NCAA probation, and Sutton the player transferred in the wake of his father's move. But if the Suttons were gloating last week, they kept it to themselves. "I'm just disappointed Kentucky didn't get to New York," Sean said. "I still have a lot of friends there, and it would have been fun to play the Wildcats."

There's always the chance that Sean will run into his Kentucky buddies in that tournament at the end of the season. Penders was only partially right when he said the four teams in New York were all "good clubs that are capable of reaching the NCAA tournament." Oklahoma State might be capable of doing more than that. Far more.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANThe high-flying Houston stung the Yellow Jackets for 19 points and six rebounds in the final and was named the NIT's MVP. TWO PHOTOSMANNY MILLANSutton the player (20) and his scurrying style brought stability to the Cowboys and made Sutton the coach (right) a winner again. PHOTOMANNY MILLANBugged by the flu, Anderson's unassuming heir showed the Best is yet to come.

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