Oklahoma State enters its Big 12 opener at Kansas State on Saturday trapped in drama created by a few recent developments.
On Tuesday, Travis Ford’s program announced that center and top shot-blocker Michael Cobbins will miss the rest of the season due to an Achilles injury. On Wednesday, backup point guard Stevie Clark was arrested for marijuana possession.
ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla recently tweeted that a college coach’s greatest role is “crisis management coordinator.” Oklahoma State’s situation seems to back that statement, although Ford’s predicament is not necessarily a “crisis” at this point. Plus, he still has one of the best players in the game -- Marcus Smart -- leading his squad. And Smart’s teammates Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown are both elite talents.
But Cobbins was significant for a team that is currently 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. Oklahoma State’s greatest challenge in league play will be its limited size. That’s why the loss of Cobbins is such a blow for the program.
And Clark has averaged nearly 20 minutes per game for Oklahoma State. His 3.7 APG against 1.9 TPG comprises a better assist-to-turnover ratio than Smart’s (4.1 APG, 2.9 TPG). He also answers the most significant question each night about Smart. What happens if the sophomore star endures early foul trouble?
With Clark’s future in jeopardy and Cobbins out, Oklahoma State enters its matchup against Kansas State with questions that it can’t answer until tipoff. But this is a different team without Clark and Cobbins.
If Smart is on the floor, Oklahoma State is still a contender. Its road to the title, however, is more complicated now. Depending on what Ford does with his lineup, Nash could log more minutes inside. Sophomore Karami Murphy's time on the floor should increase, too. And sharpshooter Phil Forte will be a greater factor in the backcourt.
Oklahoma State can make these adjustments and win the Big 12. But the Pokes will be on the road against a Kansas State squad that hasn’t lost since Nov. 22 and owns a win over WCC contender Gonzaga.
With three or four potential contenders in the Big 12, one or two losses could separate the champ from the No. 2 team in the league. So an early stumble on Saturday could cost Oklahoma State down the road.
Oklahoma State’s most immediate concern, however, is its new reality and the pressure it will face on the road in its first game of conference action.