Peeking at Oklahoma State
It’s early in the week, but it’s never too early to start looking ahead to the Terrapins next (and second-most important) out of conference game of the year: the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
The Cowboys, at 8-1, may have lost to lowly South Carolina 75-49 on December 6, but that doesn’t mean this team is a slouch by any stretch. One could argue, first and foremost, that the game was a fluke. That was the lowest scoring output by an Oklahoma State team in five seasons and Travis Ford may have simply caught a case of bad luck against a South Carolina team. They were ice cold from the field, and clearly didn’t expect the Gamecocks to be that solid on defense.
But coming off that loss, the Cowboys obliterated a typically talented and well-coached Memphis team 73-55. Le’Bryan Nash is one of the best swing men in the country and a true senior leader who happens to be playing some of the best basketball of his career. Meanwhile, little speedster Phil Forte III is his typical self; a tiny combo guard who can get hot from the field and kill you with his speed. In other words, Oklahoma State is still Oklahoma State.
If you’ve seen one variation of a Travis Ford-led Oklahoma State team, then you’ve seen them all. They push the pace like few teams can, and they do so in a relatively efficient manner. They’re 44th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and they do that by getting to the free throw line a whole lot with guards that bulldoze to the basket.
As a team, they are incredibly balanced, with 43% of their points coming from two pointers and nearly another 27% of points coming from free throws. The other 30% is from the deep ball.
Because they are actually not a great three-point shooting team, they are aided by being 17th nationally in free throws attempted to field goals attempted. They score on extra opportunities, and how many of those they attempt makes the difference between winning and losing.
And much like every other Oklahoma State team, it’s the little things they do that make the difference. The Cowboys, per possession, force more turnovers than all but five teams in the nation. Often that’s a result of teams trying to keep up with their breakneck pace and inevitably failing because it isn’t their game. Trying to outpace this team will result in failure.
The Big Three
Nash, Forte, and Hickey Jr. are the three leading scorers on this team, and they complement one another fairly well. Hickey Jr. is the distributor of the group, averaging 3.7 to 1.2 turnovers per game. He’s the lead man in this backcourt, and a very fundamentally sound player for someone who’s definitely not 6 ft tall. He’s also one of the best rebounders on the team with 4.2 rebounds per game.
But the real talent lies with Forte and Nash. These two are very, very capable scorers and solid defenders as well. Nash is a prototypical small forward from a build standpoint. He’s strong, a solid shooter, and has all the physical tools to beat most players at his position off the dribble. Nash has a deadly first step, and can finish through contact like Dez Wells finishes through contact. He’s also a solid rebounder.
Stopping him will be the more arduous task for Maryland. Had they Wells, this wouldn’t be as much an issue, but Layman, Wiley, and Nickens will all have serious trouble staying in front of him without getting into foul trouble. The best bet might be sticking Jonathan Graham on him early on despite the obvious gap in talent.
Forte III is not as unstoppable, but don’t let his height fool you into believing he isn’t a competent player. Forte is a thief in the same way Aaron Craft was a thief in that he just scraps for every ball. But he’s taken a major leap this year in his ability to get to the free throw line. He’s already attempted half his free throws from last season in under ten games, and his rate has increased significantly. For a guy with limited athleticism, he’s killing it.
Of course, any one of Maryland’s shooting or point guards will be able to stay in front of this guy, and Trimble, Wiley, or Pack’s height will all prove an issue for Forte.
Maryland playing man-to-man against this team gives them a slight edge over the Cowboys mostly because of their height. Neither team has much to write home about from a front court standpoint, although if Smotrycz is back and healthy, the Terps have the edge there as well.
Travis Ford might be their weak point
That’s Ford’s record over the past three seasons against top 25 and tournament opponents. Ford has proven he can win some big games, but he has proven far more often that he is incapable of coming away with victories against really talented teams on a consistent basis. That’s been Ford’s biggest knock during his tenure at Oklahoma State, and that issue may rear his head against Maryland as well.
Even shorthanded, Maryland is playing like a resilient team that can win regardless of the odds. Not having Dez Wells for this game hurts, and Maryland is going to need to get performances from some of their younger players to squeeze enough out of the tank to win, but it’s still doable against Ford.
Jake Layman has progressed into an elite player and is only getting better. Where he used to have problems against more talented teams, he now thrives in different ways. Simply guarding him from the perimeter isn’t going to cut it anymore; Layman can beat you at the free throw line and use his length to score over slightly more athletic wings.
Combine that with Melo Trimble, and Maryland still matches up well with Oklahoma State tit-for-tat. The difference will be coaching, and Mark Turgeon is probably a better coach than Ford at this juncture.