Team preview: Oklahoma State

Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2012-13 season, exclusively on Insider

Updated: October 18, 2012, 2:48 PM ET
Blue Ribbon Yearbook

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

Travis Ford grabbed the recruit he wanted, played in the summer tour he wanted and built the team he wanted. Then real life got in the way.

Oklahoma State finished 4-0 on a mid-August tour of Spain, and the Cowboys started to gel with high-caliber freshman combo guard Marcus Smart leading the way. But just days after the tour concluded, the team was dealt a blow for the upcoming season.

Guard Cezar Guerrero, who averaged 5.6 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 32 games last season as a freshman, announced he needed to leave Oklahoma State to attend to his ill mother. Guerrero, who hails from Los Angeles, transferred to Fresno State.

"Cezar has been a valuable member of this team, and we appreciate all the contributions that he has made to the program," Ford said. "We will certainly help him in any way possible & to continue his education while also pursuing his basketball career."

The departure of Guererro, who started six games, will darken but not completely damage Ford's reloading project. There's enthusiasm surrounding the program, even with Guererro's loss, and much of that optimism is because of Smart.

Smart, a 6-4 guard, was a Rivals' five-star recruit at Flower Mound Marcus (Texas) High School. He was one of five members selected to the ESPNHS All-American Elite Team, tabbed a McDonald's All-American and voted a two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year in Texas. Smart averaged 15.1 points, shot 66.9 percent from the floor, grabbed 9.2 rebounds and handed out five assists per game in high school. Ford raved about Smart's intangibles and unselfishness in both high school play and on the AAU circuit with the Texas Assault.

"He's just the ultimate competitor," Ford said. "He loves to win. It's contagious to his teammates, which we're excited about because he's going to bring a great enthusiasm and energy and brings a lot of winning to our team. Again, it's contagious. He talks more than any other player I've seen on the court. He loves to talk to his teammates."

Smart showcased his skills on the world stage in early summer, leading the national U18 team to the gold medal in the 2012 FIBA Americas U18 Championships. Smart started all five games and finished with team highs in assists (20) and steals (18). Smart broke the national team's tournament steals record of 16, set by Andre Iguodala in 2002. Only three other Americans have recorded at least 20 assists previously in the tournament.

Smart earned rave reviews from his USA coaches.

"I have not been around a player in a long, long time that is as good a competitor," Florida coach Billy Do-novan, the U18 head coach, told ESPN.com. "& He's special."

"He was our leader from the moment the players introduced themselves," Gonzaga coach Mark Few, one of Donovan's assistants, told CBSSports.com. "He's one of the best kids I've ever been around -- and that includes all the Zags I've coached."

"I think it's an extremely positive experience for Marcus," Ford said. "First of all, for him to represent the USA and play for USA basketball is always a great experience. From everybody I talked to out there, he's been what I've kind of expected. He's been a leader on the team, played extremely well and been a big, big hit for everybody because Marcus is all about winning. Period. That's his No. 1 concern. His No. 1 goal is to try to figure out how to help his team win. So that always plays well in kind of an all-star type team."

Smart looked at the experience as more than just playing basketball.

"A couple of us that are going into [our] freshmen year at college, we gave up our summer school," he said. "But it was all worth it because this is way bigger than what any of us has ever done. It's way bigger than our-selves. We're coming out here to represent our country. We've got people over in Iraq fighting and dying, kids our age. So this is the closest thing we can get to representing our country, and that's what we tried to do."

Smart doesn't have specific position, but it's likely he'll bring up the ball.

"We'd put Marcus at pretty much every position but center at this point because he can do it," Ford said. "He could be a great point guard. That might be his best position because he sees the court, he passes the ball, he handles the ball, and he is a natural leader. Obviously he can play the two, he can play the three, he can play the four.

"We give our guys freedom to use their talents, and we put a lot of players in a lot of different positions. Always have, so he really fits the way we play."

Smart leads a talented youth movement where four of the top five scorers return from last year. Perhaps the greatest challenge for Ford and Oklahoma State to overcome is the loss of graduated point guard Keiton Page. Page led Oklahoma State in scoring (17.1 ppg) and was OSU's leading scorer in seven of the final eight games. But as prolific as Page was as a scorer, he was more valuable to the Cowboys as a leader.

"I believe we can replace the points, but that leadership is the biggest area that we're really looking to replace Keiton," Ford said. "He's one of the best leaders that I've ever had, so that's kind of a work in progress right now."

Ford won't have to look too far to find his team leader this season. It could be Smart, despite the fact he's so young. And junior shooting guard Markel Brown (10.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg), who roomed with Page last year, has the makeup to step into that role. Brown led the Cowboys in assists last year with 80.

"He seems to want to accept that role," Ford said. "We've had some guys who have been around a little bit who we're just kind of watching to see what type of active role they take this summer. But I think Markel Brown is somebody right off the top of my head is one guy who can do that."

Ford hopes to get a healthy season out of 6-7 sophomore forward Le'Bryan Nash (13.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg), who, like Smart, was one of the nation's top recruits a year ago. Nash, a Dallas native, earned co-Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors, the first Cowboy to take that honor. That's after starting just 23 games and missing four with injuries. But he was effective when he did play, especially in conference action. Nash scored 27 points against Missouri and 21 against Iowa State.

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Nash fluctuated between the post and perimeter last season, but this year he'll settle in at small forward.

Sophomore power forward Brian Williams (9.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg) three times led Oklahoma State in scoring against Big 12 opponents. Williams, who stands 6-5, started 20 games last year and brings athleticism to the post and in transition.

Senior swing forward Jean-Paul Olukemi (9.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is recovering from surgery after tearing an ACL last year against Virginia Tech. the 6-6 Olukemi started 11 games and averaged 23 minutes a game before his injury.

"He's doing individual workouts full speed," Ford said. "The first workout I had with him, I was just shocked. I'd been hearing all along how hard he'd been working. I was getting reports every other day from our training staff just saying, 'Man, he's really working hard through rehab the last five, six months.' And it looks like it's paid off for him. It's almost like he hasn't missed a beat, and that's very exciting."

Sophomore forward Michael Cobbins (5.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg) averaged 24 minutes a game and started 20 games last year. The 6-8 Cobbins led the team in blocks with 49 and was the Cowboys' leading rebounder in 13 of 20 games against Big 12 opponents. He's likely to start in the post.

Senior center Phil Jurick, who started 16 games last year, was suspended in early August after a drug arrest. Jurick, who stands 6-11, averaged just 1.9 points but pulled down 4.9 rebounds a game before tearing an Achilles' tendon to end his season. Jurick originally signed with Tennessee before transferring to Chattanooga State, a junior college, for two seasons.

Ford might have picked up the junior college steal of the year in junior Kirby Gardner. As a 6-2 guard, Gardner averaged 17.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists for San Bernardino Valley College last year and was chosen MVP of the Foothill Division in the California Community College Association.

Gardner shot 55 percent from the floor and 45.2 from 3-point range. He'll probably be the first guard off the bench.

While Smart deservedly commands the spotlight among the freshmen, 5-11 point guard Phil Forte also demands some attention based on his play in the Texas Class 5A tournament. Forte, who was Smart's teammate at Marcus, scored 24 points in the state title game and earned Final Four MVP honors over Smart, who scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

"When they won their second state championship this year, and Phil Forte got the MVP, there was nobody more excited than Marcus was," Ford said. "You're talking about a young man who was a top-five player in the country and could have easily been an MVP of that. But he knew Phil was very deserving of it and was excited for him."

Forte's forte is outside shooting, and he won the high school 3-point contest at the Final Four this year. He averaged 14.9 points per game and 3.1 3-pointers per game in high school.

Kamari Murphy, a 6-8 freshman, picked Oklahoma State over several high-major offers including Iowa State, Louisville, Iowa and Virginia. Murphy has a long wingspan and can run the floor. He figures to play in the post as a power forward. He averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn before playing prep basketball for a year at IMG Academy, where he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds. Murphy led the Cowboys in rebounding on their trip to Spain (6.5 rpg).

Two players who figure to add depth as reserves are 7-0 sophomore center Marek Soucek (1.4 ppg, 0.6 rpg) and 6-3 sophomore guard Christien Sager (0.4 ppg, 0.4 rpg). Soucek hails from the Czech Republic and competed on the national U20 squad before playing for an academy in the Canary Islands and then moving to Oklahoma State. Sager remains a walk-on but earned a second-semester scholarship last year.

Ford Stuen is Coach Travis Ford's nephew and, like Ford, hails from Kentucky. Stuen, who stands 6-3, averaged 19.3 points a game at Henderson County (Ky.) High School as a senior before heading to IMG Academy, where he put up 14 points, four rebounds and four assists a game.

Senior post Mason Cox (0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg) adds depth with his 6-10 frame.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B
BENCH/DEPTH: C
FRONTCOURT: B
INTANGIBLES: C

Oklahoma State's recruiting coup of Smart coupled with the returnees and a sleeper in Gardner could vault the Cowboys back their traditional slot in the Big 12's top half. The non-conference schedule is manageable with only one true road trip (Virginia Tech) and the Puerto Rico Tip-Off offers a challenging, yet not overwhelming, bracket.

The Big 12 remains difficult despite the league losing Missouri and Texas A&M. Oklahoma State beat three NCAA tournament teams in conference play last year, including Missouri, which was ranked No. 2 at the time. The Cowboys were too young and inconsistent to challenge for the postseason last year. But that youth now has experience as well as talent.

The Cowboys will start one of the league's youngest teams with four underclassmen and a junior in the lineup, but four of the five have starting experience. They're not, big but they're athletic. Oklahoma State's combination of Smart and Nash are among the league's best. The question is, do the Cowboys have enough depth to compete? If they do, they can get to their first NCAA tournament in three seasons. If they don't, they'll still be dangerous. For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.