One-on-One With Travis Ford

Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford recently visited with for the upcoming Go Pokes Basketball Preview magazine issue. Here are some excerpts from that conversation with Ford, including last season’s roller-coaster season, Marcus Smart and expectations for the Cowboys entering the 2014-15 season.

Let’s start by taking a look back at last season.
Ford: Obviously, it was an interesting season; the fact so many things that occurred. It was definitely a season of peaks and valleys a little bit. Obviously there were a lot of expectations but even how we started the season, getting ranked fifth in America and sitting there 16-2 or 16-3 at the time and a preseason ranking of 11th and we’d moved up to fifth, so things were going really well. But we were overachieving to an extent.

Then you have what I like to call the human element came into play. We had a major injury to a major leader (in Michael Cobbins), a major player on your team. Then obviously the deal with Marcus (Smart). Life always doesn’t go as you plan. So we were riding high and then things get bad but then we pulled ourselves out of it, which is maybe one of the most gratifying things for us because so many people had written us off.

There was no question, we had dug ourselves an unbelievable hole but to be able to end the season like we did, other than the last game, is gratifying. I thought we were playing great, great basketball the last five games and into the Big 12 Tournament. And then we just did not play well (against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament). We put five or six games together in which we played extremely well and then the last game we didn’t play well. Plain and simple. We got beat by a very good Gonzaga team, and we didn’t play well.

There’s a lot we learned from last season. A lot we look back on, some good things and obviously some bad things. I wish we could have gone further in the tournament but as you saw there are a lot of great team that get beat. You’ve got to learn from every bit of it.

Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, I’m sure you hear the criticism from the fans about winning just one tournament game in your six years as head coach. Is that criticism justified?
Ford: You definitely want more. There’s no question that we’d like to go deeper in the tournament. But every year is a different year. We’ve seen some great teams get beat in the first round. I don’t dwell on it like some people do. I look at it as we’ve been to the NCAA Tournament four out of the last six seasons. So, we’ve been there. Do we want to go further? Absolutely. No question about it. But we have been there four out of the last six seasons, which is a good accomplishment.

But I grasp it and I understand it, and nobody wants to go further than I do. But there are a lot of positives that we achieved here. We’ve won over 21 games a year, we’ve beat a lot of really good basketball teams and won a lot of really big games. There are lot of big-time programs like ours that would have loved to have gone four out of the last six years, but with all that said, I do understand it. We want to achieve more, no question about it.

What do you take from last season that will make you a better coach?
Ford: Well, there’s a lot. We could be here all day with all you learn and go through. Just different situations. I think we handled a lot of situations very well.

I’m a coach that gives guys chances, and sometimes you’ve got to nip a problem in the bud a little quicker than we did a couple of times. But there are so many things that aren’t public when we’re dealing with those things. We learned that you just can’t have as many distractions as we had off the court, and on, to maximize your ability. You’ve got to do the best you can to limit the distractions but we are dealing with 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-old kids. Distractions go with it, but you’ve got to be able to manage diversity and distractions.

At the end of the day, we did and we pulled out of it, which is not easy.

Would you have done anything differently with Marcus Smart?
Ford: Again, we are talking about so many things in the past right now. Marcus was dealing with a whole lot. I knew everything (he was dealing with), and he and I met daily, and we were doing different things. I don’t know if there would be a whole lot of things I would do different because I know what we were doing.

Again, you’re talking about a young man who had done everything right and then he had that one incident in the West Virginia game here (when he kicked the chair in frustration), and that was dealt with. That was the one thing that happened, and I understood some of it. We talked about it because there were some other things going on, and we dealt with it.

Then the unfortunate incident at Texas Tech happened. I was really impressed with how he did handle all of it and how he was able to come back from it, and I thought we handled it the right way. He bounced back from it and learned from it.

Everybody makes mistakes. Not everybody makes mistakes on national television. He made a mistake, and he knows that and he owned up to it. He got his punishment and penalty.

Let’s talk about the upcoming season. Expectations are a little different this year. The Big 12 preseason poll was released this week and the Cowboys are picked eighth after being the co-favorites a year ago. What are your expectations?
Ford: We lose two really good basketball players (in Marcus Smart and Markel Brown). There’s no denying that or hiding that. We’re losing some points and leadership and experience. But I think if you look at our team we do have some guys that have proven themselves, but need to have the best years of their lives.

Le’Bryan Nash has been a three-year starter and been to the NCAA Tournament two out of his three yeas here. Phil Forte has been a back-to-back starter and been to the NCAA Tournament. Michael Cobbins has been to the NCAA Tournament. Then you’ve got Anthony Hickey, who has been a three-yhear starter at the highest level. So you really have four guys that have started at the highest level for several years. There’s no question those guys are going to have great years, need to have the best years they have to this point.

What excites you about this team?
Ford: I think we’ve put a lot of versatility, a lot of guys who can do different things within this team, more than any team we’ve had here. The first would be depth. Obviously, we’ve got to stay healthy but sitting here looking at the roster, if everybody is healthy I would say this would be the deepest team we’ve had, for the fact that they’re all probably going to play.

You don’t have the one or two guys that are going to stand out among everybody else, and we have more versatility and height. It’s the biggest team that we’ve had, (and) it’s probably going to be the fastest and most athletic team we’ve had. On paper, it’s going to lack that star power but as we know that doesn’t guarantee you success.

To this point, I think it’s a very unselfish team. We have a lot of players who are just excited to be here and are willing and excited to accept their role. We have some players that have proven themselves and we have some players that have to go through the process of playing at this level and they have to prove themselves.

Let’s talk about a few of those players who mentioned, guys who must have the best years of their careers for this team to be successful. How about Le’Bryan Nash?
Ford: He needs to have the best year since he’s been here. I think he has gotten better. He led the league in field goal percentage last year, which a lot of people don’t realize and is a great accomplishment. I thought he did a great job of accepting his role last year. But we need him to step it up and this needs to be the best year of his career.

His game needs to be more versatile. Instead of sticking around the basket, and there’s no question that’s his strength, but we’re going to need him to do more. We need him to effect the game in a lot of ways, more than just scoring. Yes we need scoring but we need rebounding, defense, passing because he can pass, he’s a good passer. We just need him to display the very versatile game that we know he has.

He was a McDonald’s All-American when he arrived four years ago. Although he’s had some great games over the years, Le’Bryan has really played in the shadows of players like Marcus Smart and Markel Brown. Is he ready to step into that role as the team’s leader?
Ford: We do need him to be the man in the right way. We need him to do it in an unselfish manner. You can still 15 to 20 points a game and still be unselfish. For him, unselfishness would be rebounding, handling the ball, playing great defense.

Yes, we need him to score but I just want him to expand his game and be a total and complete player, attitude-wise, work-ethic wise and then obviously production-wise. If he can be at his best in all of those areas than I think he can have a very good year.

Phil Forte’s role also will change, and he will be asked to do more than he’s done in his first two years, correct?
Ford: His role is going to increase. He’s been a solid, solid contributor the last two years. If you’re player who’s been playing as many minutes as he has and go from a sophomore to a junior than you role is definitely going to increase. We kind of need him to score, score in more ways.

We’re asking him to take a much bigger step in leadership, which he’s done a very good job of thus far. In the past he hasn’t been somebody who has been the most outspoken guy but he’s done a great job this summer. So we’ve asked him to adapt in that role and grow in that role and take what I call a much bigger ownership of the team. Whereas that was not his role the past two seasons.

For the first time since he was in the third grade he won’t have Marcus Smart on the court with him. How do you think he will handle that?
Ford: You don’t know but I don’t think you will see any difference really. Obviously, Marcus found him a lot and did some things (to set him up), but it’s gong to be the responsibility of some other guys to make sure he gets the ball where he needs it. For him personally and his game, I don’t think it’s going to effect him a whole lot. He’s a tough kid.

Michael Cobbins is back after recovering from his Achilles injury and surgery. What do you expect to get from him?
Ford: He’s worked hard (to get back in shape). I knew how good Cobbins was but you don’t realize exactly until you lose somebody like him. How much his leadership and his ability character-wise really helped our team. It made a huge difference, and we missed that.

Not only is he going to be a guy that is 6-9 who can play but his leadership and his experience and maturity can help this basketball team greatly. We need him to stay healthy but he also has to play with incredible confidence that he is OK and ready to go.

How much did the team miss him a year ago after he got hurt?
Ford: I knew when he got hurt what it meant, but not really to the extent. If you go back and look at the year before when we were at our best, and when we won eight straight games, there were no if, ands or buts about it he was our best player and did the most things to help us win. Michael Cobbins was the difference and I fully grasped that.

(Last year), I was excited about going into conference play. We were ranked fifth in America and everything was going great, the only game we had lost was to Memphis after playing horrendous, and I didn’t think Michael Cobbins was playing that well. So I thought we’ve got a chance here if he really kicks it in.

Him staying healthy is critical to the success of this team, isn’t it?
Ford: Yes, that’s important but you can’t sit around and worry about it. It’s not something you really can control a whole lot. We do everything in the world to prevent injuries, but it’s part of the game. It’s the human element.

Leyton Hammonds and Jeffrey Carroll are two young guys who could help this season. How much do you see them contributing this season?
Ford: Both of those guys could be the X-factor, a little bit of the unknowns. But I have high expectations for them. You hope at this point you know what you’re going to get from Phil Forte, you know what you’re going to get from Le’Bryan Nash and Michael Cobbins, and even Anthony Hickey.

I have high expectations for both Leyton and Jeffrey. Both need to develop that killer nature. That competitive spirit where they are going to compete every single play to affect the game at a high level. This is the Big 12. Those are the things we challenge those two with.

What do you like about Hammonds?
Ford: Letyon Hammonds is a guy that we tell every day, he’s needs to be a stat guy. He needs to be a guy that can score, rebound, defend, play multiple positions, but at the end of the day he’s affected the game in a lot of ways. There were signs last year of him being a very high impact player in practice, especially in preseason practices there were days where he was dominant. We just have to get it on a more consistent basis. We really need him to be more consistent.

Jeffrey Carroll redshirted last season but had some outstanding practices last season going up against the first team. Is he a player Cowboys fans should keep an eye on?
Ford: Jeffrey Carroll is a guy during his redshirt year there were days in practice he would carry the scout team by himself and beat the starters. By himself. He has the ability to get very, very hot. He has the ability to get a shot off because of his size and athletic ability, to get off a true jump shot and get off the floor. But he’s got to be consistent and he’s got to develop that toughness and competitive nature that it’s going to take to compete at this level.

He’s got to understand on a daily basis how hard you’ve got to play and how hard you have to go mentally and physically every day. If he does that, I think he has the ability to be a breakout-type player. But there are a lot of ifs… but he’s got the ability to be a guy that nobody has ever heard of right now and the next thing you know he could be a breakout guy.

I understand he may rival Phil Forte as far as being able to shoot the basketball.
Ford: It’s one thing to do it in practice when there’s no pressure on you. When a guy is redshirting you try to coach them just like you do everybody else, but you don’t. You let a few things go. You’ve got to defend and you’ve got to rebound, and do more than just shoot. That is his greatest strength, there’s no question about that.

I told him the other day, don’t lose that ability. I’ve got to count on you as a guy that is going to knock down shots for our team to succeed at the level that we all hope and expect, but he’s going to have to do more than that. I would love to play him more minutes but I don’t want to play a guy only if he’s hot, and we’ve all seen those guys. If he’s hot, he can play and you can get away with playing him, but if he’s not, he’s not going to play. He’s got to be able to get in there and not hurt us and play enough minutes to get hot. We got to get to that point.

One newcomer that Cowboys fans are anxious to see is point guard Anthony Hickey, who transferred from LSU after starting for the Tigers the past three seasons. Tell us about Anthony.
Ford: I’ve known Anthonoy for a long time. Where he’s from is just 20 minutes from my hometown. I’ve known his dad for a long time. His dad is a very well respected man, and a high school women’s coach there in Kentucky. Terrific people. I’ve known Anthony for a long time.

I wouldn’t say we recruited him out of high school but we really checked on him and followed him. I was getting a lot of people calling me telling me we needed to look at him. He was always a great football player, and really took off (in basketball) his senior year, but didn’t really start getting the big-time offers until starting later. We contacted him and did a few different things, but never extended an offer.

So how did he end up in Stillwater?
Ford: He was Mr. Basketball in Kentucky (as a high school senior), and took his team to the state championship finals in Kentucky. He was the dominant player and then went on to LSU, where he was a three-year starter. He led the country in steals his sophomore year, and Marcus Smart was second.

I always followed his career but when we saw he wasn’t going back to LSU I started doing my background work. We did get some calls, and I put my calls out to people. The best thing we could come up with was the (LSU) coach and him didn’t see eye to eye. (LSU) did have a junior college All-American point guard coming in, and the coach supported him coming here.

I made him come here and sit in front of me, and spent a couple of days visiting with me before deciding what I wanted to do. I finally said, ‘OK, I’m going to give you another opportunity.’

What excites you the most about adding him to this year’s team?
Ford: Obviously, it’s a position we didn’t have very much depth in. The one position we needed some help, and now you get a guy who started three years in the SEC. Now we need him to prove that he’s excited about this opportunity, and we need to have his best year ever.

He’s been through the wars at this level. A lot of people wonder, is he a point guard or a two guard? But from what I’ve seen thus far, and I’ve watched a lot of tape of him, I think he is a point guard. I think his passing and his shooting abilities are a little underrated. I’m hoping I can get the best out of him because I’ve seen glimpses enough of it.

What are his strengths as a player?
Ford: I think he has the ability to be a leader and a passer. He has a unique ability to pass the basketball. But at the point guard position he is a physical presence. He may not be the tallest guy but he is a physical presence in that he is built like a tank. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s quick, (with) unordinarily quick feet and hands. Again, I like guys who can affect a game in a lot of ways, and he can affect the game in a lot of ways with steals, scoring, defending.

He’s always been a great steals guy but I want him to be a better defender. Just cause you steal a lot of balls doesn’t mean you’re a great defender. But I think what kills him a lot of times is he knows he can make up for it because he’s athletic and quick. Then you’re just being average but if you’ll just dig in and make the decision that you’re not going to let that player score on you, then that athletic ability becomes your strength. It’s what takes you over the top. So we’ve got him to do that.

Another option at point guard is Jeff Newberry, a transfer from New Mexico Junior College.
Ford: I like his spirit on the court. He’s got a good spirit about him, and how he supports his teammates. He is vocal. He is fast, quick and extremely athletic. I’m not going to put him in Markel’s category yet but he is springy. He is very springy. He’s always been known as a scorer in junior college. I was impressed in how he led his junior college to the national tournament. It was big for me to see.

He’s always been known as a scorer, but watching him all summer and working with him and working with him in the preseason, I’ve been stressing to him that he can be an all-conference defender. He’s never been asked to do that but his body type, the way he can get through screens, he’s long, quick , maybe the quickest feet I’ve seen around here in a while, and he’s buying into that. He even told his teammates, ‘coach has been talking to me about being a defender and if that’s what he needs me to be than that’s what I’m going to be.’

We’ve been wondering who’s going to be our stopper? Every team has a player who you’ve got to stop. You have to have someone who can go stop him. Marcus was that guy for us, especially at the end of the year last year. Well, who is that guy going to be for this team? Right now I think a great candidate is Jeff Newberry. If he wants to play minutes that could keep him on the court a lot. I’ve been excited about his spirit, his athletic ability, his speed, his athleticism.

A third option at point guard is freshman Tyree Griffin.
Ford: Tyree is the ultimate competitor. If you asked the guys when they played pickup games, his teams always seem to win. I hear them talking about it all the time. He can shoot it but he’s also a tough guy, and at his size you’d better be. He’s another guy that I say can affect the game in a lot of ways. In individual workouts, we’ll play 2-on-2, and he’s all over the place, knocking down shots, making the right pass. Again, he’s a guy I’m expecting to really make an impact on our basketball team.

I think Cowboys fans are also anxious to see what 7-foot-1 Anthony Allen can do.
Ford: He’s 7-1 and runs and jumps. For him, we need him to be a difference maker defensively. We need him to rebound and guard that basket like nobody we’ve had to this point. His offensive game is coming. There’s no question he’s got to improve. His strength is definitely defending and bocking shots, and he can do that very well. He understands the game.

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