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Monday, January 27, 2014
Planning for Success: Big 12 speed

By Eamonn Brennan

Just for kicks, let’s start with a quiz: Is Oklahoma State a better offensive or defensive team?

Last season, the answer was obvious: The Cowboys were defined by their defense. Nowhere was the impact of Marcus Smart’s arrival felt more acutely. In the matter of one season, Oklahoma State went from allowing nearly a point per possession to 0.90. The offense got better, but the gains were fractional compared to how Oklahoma State guarded.

This season, things are not so simple. Overall, Oklahoma State’s year-over-year efficiency leap on offense rivals 2012-13’s defensive jump. Meanwhile, the Cowboys' defense gives up 0.95 points per trip (adjusted, per kenpom.com) -- still very good, but a slight upward tick from last season.

Marcus Smart
Expect Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State to push the pace against another team that likes to run, Oklahoma.
But! Since the start of Big 12 play, the Cowboys have played the league’s tightest defense and rank a mere fourth in points per possession on offense. Some of that has to do with having nearly a fourth of their shots blocked by Joel Embiid at Kansas, but still. Confusing, right? If you asked the opening question to a Magic 8 Ball, it would tell you to concentrate and try again.

Fortunately, one Cowboys trait has remained consistent all season: speed. Also fortunately, it’s one that Oklahoma happens to share and one that all but guarantees another gripping, up-and-down Big 12 affair Monday night in Norman, Okla. Because, believe it or not, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are more alike than different.

The Cowboys average a healthy 70.8 possessions per game. This season, Ken Pomeroy introduced possession length data into his team reports, which provides a fine-grained look at exactly how fast teams are on both ends of the floor. Oklahoma State wants to score in a hurry: It averages just 15.5 seconds per offensive possession, the 15th-shortest average in the country.

This all makes sense: Oklahoma State has Smart pushing the ball and Le’Bryan Nash, Markel Brown and Phil Forte filling in on the wings. Of course it wants to run. It also wants to slow opposing offenses down: Oklahoma State opponents take 18.3 seconds (rank: 272) to fully deliberate the best course of action. It is this ability to dictate games -- to push the pace on offense and then force a struggle on the return serve -- that makes playing Oklahoma State so challenging in the first place.

Meanwhile, in Norman, the Sooners’ success has been one of the surprises of the season. But it pales in comparison to the how. Lon Kruger’s reputation for smart, solid basketball teams -- teams that don’t hurt themselves with mistakes -- was well earned at UNLV, where Kruger’s teams rarely ranked above average in matters of pace.

His first two teams at Oklahoma largely followed that script. This season, the Sooners are positively run-and-gun. They average 72.9 possessions per contest and 1.17 points per trip, and they dispose of those possessions even faster than State -- in just 15.0 seconds, 10th fastest in college basketball. Much like the Cowboys, the Sooners also seek to delay opponents in defensive transition but they’re not nearly as good at it, which is among the reasons their defense is giving up 1.07 points per possession in Big 12 play.

That’s where the similarities stop. Both teams will be happy to play a fast-paced game. Both teams will look to score in transition and secondary breaks. Both teams will try to do that, all while halting the other. Thus far, though, there is no confusion about what Oklahoma is. It has to outscore you to beat you. Oklahoma State has more than one tool in its box -- and the best two-way point guard in the country to wield them.