Ford knew his team probably wouldn’t even be among the top five teams in the preseason conference poll when the Cowboys made their debut on Nov. 14 against Southeastern Louisiana inside Gallagher-Iba Arena. Smart is now with the Boston Celtics after being the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Brown was selected in the second round and traded to the Brooklyn Nets, and Brian Williams (6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 26 starts in 2013-14) and Kamari Murphy (6.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21 starts) transferred out of the program.
Those four players accounted for 56.9 percent of the Cowboys’ points (1,552 of 2,728) and 56.9 percent of the team’s rebounds (684 of 1,203) during the 2013-14 season.
But Ford has some lofty expectations for his team this winter and believes the Cowboys are going to surprise some people along the way.
“We lose two really good basketball players, there’s no denying that or hiding that," Ford said. "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 they need to have the best years of their lives.”
Yet remains Nash.
He is the team’s leading returning scorer (13.9 points) and rebounder (5.5). The 6-foot-7 senior has played a supporting role to Smart and Brown the last three seasons, but he’ll be asked to step to the forefront and play like the McDonald’s All-American he was when he signed with OSU as the ninth-best overall high school prospect in the nation. Phil Forte will also help. He scored in double figures (13.3 points as a sophomore and 10.2 as a freshman) while playing in 67 games the past two seasons. In addition, 6-8 post Michael Cobbins returns after missing most of last year after rupturing his Achilles tendon in his left leg.
“There’s no question those guys are going to have great years, need to have the best years they have to this point,” said Ford.
Nash has shown signs throughout his career of being a dominant player who can take control of a game at any time. His 29-point, 9-rebound performance in an 81-75 victory over West Virginia last January is a perfect indication. But his inconsistency has plagued him and the Cowboys for the past three seasons. Two nights after the impressive performance against West Virginia, he had just eight points and three rebounds in a loss at Oklahoma.
“He needs to have the best year since he’s been here,” Ford said. “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. 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’s a good passer… We just need him to display the very versatile game that we know he has.”
For the Cowboys to be successful, Nash can’t follow a 29-point, 9 rebound performance with single digits in the Bedlam game. There’s no Marcus Smart or Markel Brown to follow. It’s Nash’s time to shine.
“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 have 15 to 20 points a game and still be unselfish,” Ford said. “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 then I think he can have a very good year.”
Things also will be different for the 5-11 Forte, who played his entire high school career and the past two seasons at OSU alongside his longtime friend Marcus Smart. In fact, the pair played together since they were in the third grade and Smart knew how to set things up for his longtime teammate. But Smart’s now in the NBA and Forte is being asked by Ford to take on more responsibility, including becoming a vocal leader for the Cowboys.
“His role is going to increase," the Cowboys coach said. "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, then 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.”
Ford is not concerned that Forte’s production will diminish without having Smart beside him on the court.
“You don’t know, but I don’t think you will see any difference really," Ford said. "Obviously, Marcus found him a lot and did some things [to set him up], but it’s going 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 affect him a whole lot. He’s a tough kid."
Meanwhile, Cobbins was averaging just 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds when he limped off the court last Dec. 30 midway through OSU’s 92-66 victory over Robert Morris with few realized the impact he had on the Cowboys. But Ford knew what the season-ending injury meant to this team.
“I knew how good Cobbins was, but you don’t realize exactly until you lose somebody like him [and] how much his leadership and his ability character-wise really helped our team," he said. "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.”
OSU also returns another three-year starter in Anthony Hickey, who started 85 games the past three seasons at Louisiana State University. The 5-11 point guard was granted his release by LSU Tigers head coach Johnny Jones after last season, and joined the Cowboys' program this past summer. Hickey started 31 games for the Tigers a year ago; averaging 8.4 points, 3.7 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals as a junior.
Ford knew of Hickey’s outstanding high school career at Christian County High School in Kentucky, where he grew up about 20 miles from the OSU head coach’s hometown. Hickey was a quarterback who led Christian County to the state championship game and a few months later was named 2011's Mr. Basketball in Kentucky after leading his team to the Class 5A state basketball title.
“I wouldn’t say we recruited him out of high school, but we really checked on him and followed him," Ford said. "He was always a great football player and really took off [in basketball] his senior year and didn’t really start getting the big-time offers until starting later.
“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. It seems like the only thing we could come up with was the [LSU] coach and him didn’t see eye to eye.
“Obviously, point guard is 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."
Ford expects LSU's loss to be a gain for his Cowboys.
“I think he has the ability to be a leader and a passer," the coach said. "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, and he has 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.”
Three players returning from last year’s squad with a chance to make an impact are 7-foot senior Marek Soucek, 6-7 sophomore Leyton Hammonds and 6-6 redshirt freshman Jeffrey Carroll. Soucek has played sparingly over the past three years, Hammonds saw action in 31 games a year ago as a freshman, and Carroll will see his first action this season after redshirting last year.
“I have high expectations for both Leyton and Jeffrey,” Ford said. “Leyton 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.”
Carroll spent a year ago refining his game in practice going against Smart and Brown. An outstanding 3-pointer shooter, he often led the scout team in scoring against the starting five.
“During his redshirt year, there were days in practice he would carry the scout team by himself and beat the starters,” Ford said. “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.”
In addition to Hickey, the Cowboys roster has a handful of other newcomers, including junior college point guard Jeff Newberry, 7-1 junior college post Anthony Allen, and four freshmen: 6-6 wing Joe Burton, 5-10 point guard Tyree Griffin, 6-6 wing Tavarius Shine and 6-9 post Mitchell Solomon.
Newberry is a 6-2, 190-pound point guard who earned honorable mention All-America honors after leading New Mexico Junior College to a 27-7 record and the NJCAA Men’s National Basketball Championship tournament. He averaged 13.5 points, 3.7 assists and 2.1 rebounds last season as a sophomore.
“I like his spirit on the court," Ford said. "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. 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.
“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.”
Allen is a 7-1, 240-pound player originally from Kingston, Jamaica, who played at Lamar State College-Port Arthur last season. He averaged 11 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.2 blocks in helping the Seahawks to a school-best 25 victories last season. Allen had 10 games during his two-year junior college career in which he blocked 10 or more shots, including a career-high 14 at Blinn College.
“We need him to be a difference maker defensively and we need him to rebound and guard that basket like nobody we’ve had to this point,” Ford said. “His offensive game is coming. There’s no question he’s got to improve offensively, but his strength is definitely defending and blocking shots, and he can do that very well. He understands the game.”
Ford is excited about all four of the freshmen entering the program.
Burton joined the team in late August after passing several online classes to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. He averaged 19.3 points and was named first-team All-State Class 5A by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches and was a finalist for the Guy V. Lewis Award last season given to the top player in the Houston area.
Griffin (5-10, 165) was named the Louisiana Large School Player of the Year after leading Landry-Walker High School to the Class 4A state championship, averaging 17.2 points, 6 assists and 5.6 rebounds.
“Tyree is the ultimate competitor,” Ford said. “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 individuals, 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.”
Shine is a 6-6 wing originally from Irving, Texas, who spent last season at Fork Union Military Academy. As a senior at MacArthur High School in Irving, he averaged 20 points per game while earning co-MVP in District 6-5A.
“His strengths are he can really shoot the basketball, and he understands the game," Ford said. "He’s got to continue to get stronger. As we tell him, he’s got to tighten his game up."
The 6-9 Solomon averaged 18.3 points and 10.4 rebounds last season at Bixby (Okla.) High School.
“Mitchell is an extremely hard worker," the coach said. "He came in very strong already, which was great. He’s much more comfortable facing the basket than he is with his back to the basket right now. The big adjustment for him is learning to go against guys that are not just his size but bigger than him, and he hasn’t had to do that. I fully expect Mitchell to get better and better and better.”
A year ago, much of the talk in the preseason was whether the Cowboys could end Kansas’ streak of nine consecutive Big 12 titles and if OSU would make a serious run in the NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys were 12-1 and ranked No. 6 in the nation entering Big 12 play but went 9-12 the rest of the way, including losing to Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament.
Expectations are much different for this year’s Cowboys.
“I think we’ve got a lot of versatility, a lot of guys who can do different things within this team, more than any team we’ve had here," Ford said. "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, 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."
The goal is to make the program’s third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and the fifth in Ford’s seven years as head coach of the Cowboys.
“We got in with eight wins [in Big 12 play] last year, but we did a lot of damage out of the league,” said Ford, referring to OSU’s 8-10 conference record last season. “There are going to be years when a team does get in with a losing record [in conference], but you don’t want to depend on that.
“In our league, you've got to win nine games. So I look at it as what’s going to help us go out and win nine or more games and try to finish at the top half of the Big 12? At one time, I was thinking about making it a cupcake heaven [schedule], but I kind of went away from that later, [saying] let’s test them and get ready the best we can for the league.”
PLEASE NOTE: THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE WINTER 2014 ISSUE OF GOPOKES MAGAZINE