The old men of Oklahoma State are back for more. Four starters who'll average almost 23 years of age at the start of the season return from a Final Four fling. And that includes senior John Lucas III, one of the Cowboys' two Big 12 Players of the Year.
Tony Allen, the team's other conference Player of the Year, graduated and became a first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics. But former military man Aaron Pettway, a 24-year-old hoss sorely needed for the middle, should fit right in with this graybeard group built for another long romp through the NCAA tournament.
"I thought it made a big difference last year to be an older team," said Sean Sutton, named "head coach designate" in an off-season move designed to assure a smooth transition when his father Eddie Sutton decides to retire. "That team handled success as well as any team we ever had here. They never got caught up in the moment."
FRONTCOURTJoey Graham and Ivan McFarlin form a dominant duo, yet Pettway's progress may be the key to OSU's success.
That's a lot to expect from a junior college transfer who didn't even make his high school basketball team, then spent four years in the Air Force. But Pettway sprouted seven inches during his stay in the service, became a legitimate player, and eventually set a Hutchinson (Kans.) Community College career record with 152 blocked shots.
"Last year, we were able to get away with a small lineup," said Sean Sutton. "It finally caught up with us a little bit against Georgia Tech in the Final Four."
Pettway's arrival will allow McFarlin to shift from the center spot to power forward, in turn moving Graham from power forward to small forward -- more natural positions for both.
McFarlin has been a rebounding force for three years with the Cowboys and showed more shooting touch around the basket last season.
Graham emerged late (15.4 ppg in postseason), carrying the club at times and setting himself up for a banner senior season. Big and quick, he's a bad matchup in almost any pairing. His only drawbacks are an occasional bout with foul trouble and lapses in intensity.
The Cowboys are still hoping to tap the ability of 7-foot-2 center Frans Steyn, a former South African rugby player who has had trouble adapting his skills to basketball.
Veteran Terrence Crawford, finally injury-free, is a valuable defender and rebounder off the bench. Swingman David Monds adds athleticism to the lineup.
BACKCOURTMost had pegged Lucas for little more than a complementary role with the Cowboys after his escape from the tragic mess at Baylor.
Whether he was distributing the basketball or dropping big shots from the point, Lucas transformed himself into the most valuable player in the Big 12. His 3-pointer to beat St. Joseph's and send OSU to the Final Four was one of the season's lasting memories.
"John was probably one of the biggest surprises in college basketball last season," said Sutton. "He just willed himself to become a better player."
Replacing Allen's offense, defense and grit won't be easy. Yet talent exists, with a heated competition expected for the off-guard spot.
Daniel Bobik started in OSU's three-guard lineup last year and is a 3-point threat, who also delivers smarts and defense. But he'll have to fend off Stevie Graham, Joey's twin brother, and incoming freshman JamesOn Curry, the all-time leading scorer in North Carolina high school history.
FINAL ANALYSISNobody in the Big 12 returns as much experience or firepower as the Cowboys. Lucas is a star, McFarlin is underrated and Graham is just figuring out how dominant he can be.
Still, a soft middle was finally revealed under the brightest of spotlights -- the Final Four.
"It's really important for this team, if we're going to be a team that wins the Big 12 again, that we develop some lost-post production," said Sutton. "Defensively, I think we're going to be OK. But we have to score some points inside."
If Pettway, and even Steyn, can produce in the paint, the Cowboys are capable of another deep run in March.