5 Questions about basketball

Is this team capable of competing for one of the top three spots in the Big 12? <BR><BR> Four teams are ranked ahead of the Cowboys in the national polls so the projected fifth-place preseason selection would appear to be an accurate projection. But if the Cowboys jell early in conference play they could surprise and finish higher.

The first half of the conference schedule is critical. Five of the first eight league games are on the road. To finish near the top, the Pokes need to win at least two or three of those five road games and hold serve in all three home games. That would put the Cowboys at 6-2 or 5-3 at the halfway point, poised to make a second-half run.

Many of the Pokes early league road games are winnable, the type of games contending teams win. But the bottom half of the league is vastly improved. If the Cowboys can win in Lubbock, Manhattan, College Station or Ames it would build confidence. Every road win will be valuable in what could be a wide-open race for the top six spots.

Five of the Cowboys' last eight Big 12 games are at Gallagher-Iba Arena. How the Pokes play in January and early February will determine whether they can surpass preseason prognostications.

2. How big a concern is the lack of an inside game?

It's the Cowboys' one glaring deficiency. After BYU center Rafael Arajuo scored 32 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, coach Eddie Sutton confessed he might have to play more zone during conference play. That spoke volumes. Sutton uses a zone about as often as Baylor wins Big 12 football games.

Missouri, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma are solid inside. No question, the Cowboys will be at a disadvantage in the paint. But if they can minimize the damage against the league's premier teams they can compensate with an advantage of their own – strong perimeter play.

Jason Miller and Ivan McFarlin must be consistent on the defensive boards and avoid getting into foul trouble. Freshman David Monds, 7-foot-2 center Frans Steyn and junior college transfer Tremaine Fuqua must provide quality minutes off the bench. Everyone else, including Joey Graham and Tony Allen, must contribute on the boards.

If the Cowboys can hold their own on the glass and avoid being dominated inside, they can compete with any team in the league. Scoring won't be a problem. How well they rebound and limit opposing post players will determine how far this team will go.

3. Who were the biggest surprises in nonconference play?

Daniel Bobik and David Monds. Bobik was viewed as a valuable reserve off the bench. But Bobik, a BYU transfer, is a solid all-around player. Bobik is a glue player, the type of player who provides intangibles that makes everyone around him better.

As advertised, Bobik has a quick release and is a deadly 3-point threat. He's capable of scoring 20 and will average close to double figures. It's his other skills that have been a pleasant surprise. Bobik can play back-up point guard, is second on the team in assists, can contribute three or four rebounds a game and has been a dependable perimeter defender.

Monds, a 6-7 freshman, was the least heralded of the three incoming recruits. Marcus Dove, a top 75 national high school recruit, is redshirting while Monds is earning valuable minutes off the bench.

After adding strength during his year at a prep school in Florida, Monds has some upside. The Macon, Ga., product has long arms and can jump. Envision a more offensive version of former forward Andre Williams.

Monds' role this season is to be a rebounder off the bench. In time, Monds will develop into a quality shot-blocker and has some offensive skills, including a 15-foot shooting range. The one thing working against Monds is Terrence Crawford's return from a knee injury could cut into Monds' minutes.

4. Will the Cowboys once again struggle at the line?

They shouldn't. Early-season free-throw shooting woes had some fans thinking, "Here we go again." But nearly every one of the Cowboys' top offensive players have a good track record.

Bobik and the Graham twins (Joey and Stevie) were good free-throw shooters at North Texas and Central Florida before they transferred. John Lucas should shoot 85 percent or better. Last year he shot 87.1 percent at Baylor.

The biggest disappointment early in the season was Tony Allen struggled at the line. Because he often drives hard to the basket, Allen probably will lead the team in free throw attempts. Allen shot 69.1 percent last season. There's no reason he shouldn't hit 70 percent but was shooting under 50 percent the first month of the season.

Jason Miller shot 75 percent his sophomore year at North Texas. Even Ivan McFarlin has more range this season and could shoot 70 percent or better.

The past three OSU teams shot 65 percent or worse. Coaches felt this team should shoot between 72 and 75 percent. A woeful 62 percent start the first six games was an aberration. This team will shoot at least 70 percent by season's end. Free throw shooting will be an asset, not a liability.

5. What one player is most critical to OSU making a run in the Big 12?

Joey Graham. You pretty much know what you're going to get from Tony Allen and Ivan McFarlin. Allen will have his spurts and average close to 15 points. McFarlin will average 10 or 11 points and 8 or more rebounds. John Lucas is invaluable at point guard and should improve as the season progresses. Daniel Bobik will be among the team leaders in minutes.

But it's Joey Graham, the slightly larger of the Graham twins, who can take this team to another level.

One coach said during preseason that Joey Graham might be the most gifted player in the program since Desmond Mason joined the NBA. Joey Graham has Mason-like skills. A down-the-baseline dunk in early December was evidence of his athleticism.

Joey Graham already is showing signs of being a tremendous offensive player. But to average 25-plus minutes in conference play, Joey must improve defensively and become a more consistent rebounder. To reach their potential, the Cowboys need Joey Graham to become an impact player in every phase of the game.

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