Boys to Men
Stacked with juniors and seniors, Oklahoma State is on top of the Big 12
After his team was drubbed 80-60 by Oklahoma State on Feb. 9, Kansas coach Bill Self was asked to pinpoint the Cowboys' surprising success this season. He could have cited any number of statistics: Oklahoma State outrebounded Kansas 43-26, shot 75% from three-point range in the first half (53.3% for the game), scored 29 points off turnovers and had five players reach double figures. Self, however, was most impressed by a number that was not on the stat sheet. "Their starting five has been out of high school a combined 21 years," Self said. "There aren't a lot of teams these days you can say that about"
Indeed, the No. 7 Cowboys, who through Sunday were in sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a 9-1 record (19-2 overall) despite having been picked to finish fifth by both the league's media and coaches, have taken full advantage of their uncommon maturity. Their starting lineup is made up of two seniors and three juniors (including 24-year-old Daniel Bobik, a 6'4" guard who spent his first two years out of high school on a Mormon mission and then went to BYU for two years before transferring in 2002), and their top three reserves are two seniors and a junior. That collective experience is a major reason why Oklahoma State led the nation in field goal shooting (52.5%) at week's end and had been unflappable on the road. On Jan. 17, the Cowboys overcame a 16-point second-half deficit at Kansas State, and in winning last month at Texas and two weeks ago at Iowa State, they snapped home win streaks of 25 and 12 games, respectively.
Another key to Oklahoma State's success is that it now has a potent offense to go along with an in-your-face defense that has long been a trademark of coach Eddie Sutton's teams. (At week's end the Cowboys were ranked third in the Big 12 in scoring D.) Thanks in large part to Tony Allen (16.2 points per game), a 6'4" senior guard who played at two junior colleges before coming to Oklahoma State last year, and 5'11" junior point guard John Lucas, who transferred from Baylor last summer, Sutton has his best offensive team since the 1995 squad, which reached the Final Four. After Lucas arrived on campus last fall, he and Allen became fast friends through their frequent late-night shooting workouts in Gallagher-Iba Arena. (They don't leave until they have made a combined 700 jump shots.) Lucas was the Cowboys' second-leading scorer (14.1 points per game) and was second in the Big 12 in assists (4.81 per game). Lucas has also liberally shared with Allen the hoops insights he acquired from his father, John, who spent 20 years playing and coaching in the NBA. "He's always talking to me during games and practices about what I should be doing," Allen says of the younger Lucas. "It's like he's coaching while he's playing."
Up front, Joey Graham, a 6'7" junior forward who transferred from Central Florida, has been an ideal complement to 6'8" senior Ivan McFarlin, who was averaging 11.9 points and 6.4 rebounds a game. That such chemistry has evolved on a team that includes seven players who began their college careers elsewhere is further testament to the benefits of experience. "This isn't the most talented team I've ever coached, but these guys really understand what their roles are," Sutton says. "I still don't think we're a Final Four team, but I didn't think we'd be this good either. I hope they keep surprising me."
Surprising South Carolina
Gamecocks Show Their True Grit
On Feb. 10 South Carolina junior guard Mike Boynton Jr. was bitten on his right calf by an insect in his bedroom, causing an abscess to develop that was so painful that he almost had to miss the Gamecocks' game the following night against No. 6 Mississippi State. Boynton gutted his way through the game, dishing out six assists in 39 minutes in a 79-75 overtime loss, and afterward team doctors removed the abscess in the training room. Boynton had to skip practice the next day, but he still made a career-high five three-pointers in the Gamecocks' 82-75 win over Vanderbilt last Saturday.
That kind of effort has been typical on a team that had a surprising 20-5 record (7-4 in the SEC) through Sunday. "They've answered the bell every night," says coach Dave Odom. "We haven't always played our best, but we've always given our best."
South Carolina is particularly tough on defense, where Odom has deployed a full-court, trapping press to compensate for the team's lack of size. At week's end the Gamecocks led the SEC in field goal percentage defense (37.3), three-point percentage defense (26.7) and blocks (6.1 per game).
Though South Carolina's RPI is 38th because of a weak nonconference schedule, the Gamecocks are alone in second place in the SEC's Eastern Division. That puts them in an excellent position to earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 1998.