- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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A couple of caveats are required here:
1. It is still very early in the season. Maybe this entire blog post will be rendered useless if/when No. 6 NC State (or UMass) dominates OSU Sunday afternoon. It's possible.
2. Tennessee played terrible offensive basketball Friday. I mean, just terrible. Cuonzo Martin's team made a grand total of eight -- eight! -- two-point field goals, and went 5-of-23 from 3, for a grand total of 26.0 percent from the field, 31 percent eFG% and .72 points per trip. No one played well. Jarnell Stokes was 2-of-8. Trae Golden was 4-of-12. No other player converted more than one field goal apiece. Give Oklahoma State's team some defensive credit if you like, but the Cowboys didn't get that much better on the defensive end a day after an OT win over Akron. Tennessee just threw up a complete and utter stinker. This much is undeniable.
But despite those two things, there were a lot of positive signs in Oklahoma State's performance Friday.
Besides some general impressions -- most notably the spacing Oklahoma State maintained, which opened the court brilliantly for their talented and athletic wings -- the first is Marcus Smart. Just about everyone who had spent considerable time watching Smart play high school basketball, from Dave Telep to Billy Donovan, who coached Smart in the USA U-18s and came away singing Smart's praises from the mountaintop, said Smart was by far the best competitor and teammate of any player in the 2012 class.
That is always good to hear. But there are lots of good teammates in the world; Smart can really play, too. On Friday he had 17 points (5-of-12 from the field, 6-of-8 from the free throw line) with nine rebounds, three assists, and two steals, all the way taking the majority of OSU's ballhandling responsibilities. He doesn't just have the intangibles -- he's a strong, well-built 6-foot-3 point guard with every tool in the toolbox. He could very well be a star.
But perhaps more importantly, LeBryan Nash -- a top-10 recruit in the class of 2011 -- looks improved, too. In three games this season, he's scored 16/7 , 18/7 and 17/5, but even better than the numbers is the way he's getting them: at the free throw line. Against Akron, Nash took 12 free throws (he made eight); against Tennessee, he went 11-of-13.
Why is this important? Because Nash's freshman season showcased a truly talented player who didn't quite seem to get what he was good at. Too often you'd see him settle for silly outside shots; too often he would try complicated things with a high degree of difficulty instead of merely getting past his man and getting to the rim. So far this season -- and I've seen 80 of Nash's minutes so far -- he looks far more polished, with better movement and a clearer desire to get to the rim, where basically no one in college basketball is athletic enough to check him. (One example: On Thursday, Nash beat his man down the floor, flashed to the near short-corner, caught an entry pass, took one dribble, and then finished with a powerful one-handed dunk. Last season, Nash might have gone into "check this out" mode as soon as he caught the pass, and ended up with a wild reverse layup or something.)
As a freshman, Nash's usage rate was 29.0 percent, and his offensive rating was 89.2. Even if his overall court game doesn't improve (and it appears on track already), Nash is going to get more efficient this season if he merely focuses on getting to the rim and getting fouled. So far, so good.