Last season, as Marcus Smart revitalized Oklahoma State -- when the Cowboys defense went from one ranked outside the tempo-free top 100 to the 15th-best group in the country, and the team went from 15 wins to 24 — a fascinating little subplot emerged.
Actually, emerged isn't the word. "Existed" is more like it. Because while Smart soaked up all of the attention, and deservedly so, Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown, without whom the Cowboys would have been moribund on offense, flew disproportionately under the radar.
Let's not repeat that mistake.
Smart has, to no one's surprise, stepped forward as a player-of-the-year candidate this season; he is playing more efficiently despite a greater share of the Cowboys' attack and he's every bit as good as he was (if not better) on the defensive end. He deserves his plaudits, and Oklahoma State appears to be a much better team on both ends of the floor. But the team's drastically improved offense from a year ago has as much, if not more, to do with Brown, who is playing the smoothest, most balanced and most effective offense of his career.
This has a lot to do with simple perimeter shooting. As a freshman, Brown shot 26.2 percent from 3-point range. As a sophomore, 31.9. Last season, as a junior, with nearly double the attempts (143) over the previous season (72), Brown boosted his percentage to 36.4. This season, he has shot 42.9 percent. That kind of leap in 3-point percentage might seem like an outlier for most players. But Brown's entire career 3-point shooting chart has comprised almost exactly that sort of year-over-year improvement. If he keeps it up, don't be surprised.
That accuracy has made Oklahoma State's offense go. Phil Forte and suspended freshman Stevie Clark have shot the ball better, yes, but neither player presents the kind of choice Brown, in his wiry and athletic frame, forces defenses into. He can spot up and shoot on the wing -- and he often does, frequently when the ball is swung from a penetrating Smart; 26 percent of Brown's possessions come from spot-ups, per Synergy data. But if the defense closes out, Brown can put it on the floor and get to the rim, or pull up, and his field goal percentage doesn't suffer no matter what he decides.
Combine that with his athleticism in transition and with his defense -- Brown is blocking more shots this year than ever before, too -- and you could quite easily argue that Brown has been better than his fêted point guard to date. (Not "more important," necessarily. "Better?" I can swish that around.)
Of course, paying attention to Brown might distract from another unsung piece of Oklahoma State's success, junior forward Le'Bryan Nash, currently having his most fulfilling season since arriving as a star prospect three years ago.
But that's homework for another weekend. As Oklahoma State prepares for Saturday night's 11:30 p.m. ET start against Colorado's big, physical perimeter at the MGM Grand, pay close attention to Brown -- he, more than any Cowboy save Smart, makes Travis Ford's team go.