Feb. 10, 2004
Two teams really flying under the radar nationally are Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. Yes, they're ranked in the top 10 -- but honestly, how many people are talking about these two schools as Final Four contenders? You hear about Duke, Stanford and Connecticut as powers, you hear about St. Joseph's as an unbeaten ... but not about Oklahoma State and Mississippi State.
Remember this: Mississippi State is one basket away from being unbeaten, having lost a heartbreaker in the final second on a tip-in against Kentucky. That loss is the difference between recognition as an unbeaten and flying under the radar, baby!
|Oklahoma State's John Lucas made it on the All-Rolls Royce fifth team.|
I think one reason these two programs are not receiving as much publicity is location, location, location. There aren't as many media members in Starkville, Miss. or Stillwater, Okla. But let me tell you, having gone to both places this season, the enthusiasm and fan support there is special.
Oklahoma State's Gallagher-Iba Arena is a lot like Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, with loud, enthusiastic fans who show a love and passion for their team. They're intelligent, knowledgeable fans with a lot to cheer for these days.
One other thing these two schools have in common -- key transfers from Baylor.
Mississippi State (No. 6 ESPN/USA Today) added big man Lawrence Roberts, who has been as valuable as any player in the SEC this season. He can rebound and score, and his presence has made a big difference when you consider that coach Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs lost Mario Austin early to the NBA draft. Plus, recruit Travis Outlaw went to the NBA right out of high school, never stepping foot on the Starkville campus.
Oklahoma State (No.10 ESPN/USA Today) added point guard John Lucas from Baylor. He has made an impact as the Cowboys' floor general.
Transfers are nothing new for Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton -- he had three in his starting lineup in Monday's big 80-60 win over Kansas (I was there to broadcast the game for ESPN). That's right, Mr. Lucas, Daniel Bobik from BYU and Joey Graham from Central Florida. That's a formula that has worked over the years for Sutton, with transfers like Brooks Thompson, Doug Gottlieb, Victor Williams and many others who've made an impact.
Imagine where Baylor would be right now if Roberts, Lucas and Kenny Taylor (now at Texas) didn't transfer! Wow!
Lucas, a junior, has been dazzling lately. He controls the half-court game and also puts pressure on the ball defensively. Sutton admits his transfer guard is better than he expected.
I was also impressed with the way Lucas has improved his range as a shooter. He's a weapon on the perimeter, and that just adds to his quickness and penetration ability because you can't defend him one way. He is now an all-around threat, and he was in a zone on Monday night (21 points).
I love the work ethic displayed by senior guard Tony Allen. I was at the gym Sunday night, and there was Allen, working on his shot all by himself. Let me tell you, that effort pays off. Mr. Allen can flat-out shoot the rock.
Oklahoma State is so efficient in its half-court game. The Cowboys are always looking for a high-percentage shot, making the extra pass to get the best scoring opportunity. That's why they lead the nation in field-goal percentage. The Cowboys also are exceptional defenders in the half-court game, a must come NCAA tourney time.
The Cowboys also are exceptional defenders in the half-court game, a must come NCAA tourney time.
I was surprised to see Kansas lacking the kind of passion and energy you usually see from the Jayhawks. There is such pride in wearing the Kansas uniform. They're talented enough to compete and not get embarrassed. But I think coach Bill Self's team will bounce back.
Oklahoma State isn't talked about much compared to other Big 12 schools like Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Now that the Cowboys are in first place in the conference, that may change.
Oklahoma State and Mississippi State may not get the recognition, but watch out come March. These schools could be dangerous contenders for a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio.
Dick Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons and the University of Detroit in the 1970s before providing color commentary for ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979 (he's been an analyst for ESPN ever since). Send a question for Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.