Can Joey Graham Lead Cowboys to Title?

What's it take to win an NCAA basketball title? A player like Emeka Okafor who led Connecticut to the championship last year? Or a Carmelo Anthony who only played one year of college basketball but left quite a legacy by leading Syracuse to the 2003 title? Or Juan Dixon who was the go-to man in helping Maryland and Gary Williams win it all in 2002? Can Joey Graham do for Oklahoma State the same things that Okafor, Anthony and Dixon did for their teams the past three years?

Yes, the 6-foot-7 senior forward is good enough to lead the Cowboys to the national title. But, the bigger question is can he be aggressive enough while staying out of foul trouble to do it?

If Graham plays like he did in the Big 12 Conference Tournament last week there are only a handful of teams capable of defeating the Cowboys. Graham played his best basketball in nearly a month during the three days of the Big 12 tourney, and it showed as Oklahoma State won its second consecutive conference tournament title. When Graham plays his best, the Cowboys play their best.

Graham plays his best when he is being aggressive, taking the ball to the basket, and crashing the offensive boards.

In the Big 12 Tournament championship game, Graham scored 16 points (going 6-for-6 from the foul line) and grabbed 11 rebounds (four offensive) to earn most valuable player honors in the Cowboys' 72-68 victory over Texas Tech. A day earlier, against Kansas, Graham was 10-of-11 from the free-throw line as he scored 25 points. In the Cowboys' quarterfinal victory over Colorado he scored 24 points (again going 6-of-6 from the line) and had six rebounds.

OSU head coach Eddie Sutton says for Graham to be successful he needs to take the ball inside where he is strong enough to muscle it up for a basket or get fouled (which isn't a bad thing when you've made 98 of your last 102 free throws).

"I'm more concerned with him getting aggressive on the offensive end," Sutton said earlier this week. "I want him to go to that offensive glass. I want him to take that ball and drive it, get fouled, and post up down there on the block.. Yes, I want him to be aggressive on defense, as far as going to the defensive boards. He did that on Sunday and he got 11 rebounds. He hadn't been doing that."

But Sutton is also quick to point out that for Graham "to be one of the best players in our league, I don't think he gets as many friendly calls as some of the star players in the past have gotten."

Sutton, however, said Graham was not being aggressive on either end of the floor and that was one reason the Cowboys closed out the regular season by losing three of their last four games.

When he's playing his best, and being aggressive, the Cowboys are at their best. Early in the season – when the Cowboys defeated NCAA Tournament teams Syracuse (27-6) and Alabama-Birmingham (21-10) in back-to-back games – Graham was at his best. In Madison Square Garden against Syracuse he scored 16 points and went 8-for-11 from the foul line. Three nights later, against UAB, he led the Cowboys with 20 points and seven rebounds while making 6-of-7 free throws.

But Graham has found it to be a fine line between being aggressive on the offensive end (where he has picked up his share of player-control fouls) and the defensive end (where he admits he sometimes commits silly fouls). He knows staying out of foul trouble is a must at this point in the season (Graham fouled out of five games, and the Cowboys lost three of those – two to Texas and the other to Nebraska).

"That's one thing as a basketball player, playing within the system and playing within the refs, you have to find a happy medium, which is staying aggressive without picking up some dumb fouls," Graham said. "I'm learning, slowly but surely how to do that but a lot of times I get a little too aggressive and pick up some quick ones early on. I know that in the NCAA Tournament that it's one and done, so you can't lose, so I need to contain my aggressiveness just a little bit. I really have to stay aggressive but as far as picking up those cheap ones I have to keep them to a minimum."

Sutton says its imperative that the Cowboys keep Graham in the game, but thinks it will be easier in the NCAA Tournament than it was during Big 12 play.

"Normally in the NCAAs I don't think they call the games quite as close," said Sutton, who should know after all he's only compiled a 37-25 record while taking teams to the NCAA Tournament 26 of the last 35 years. "They usually let them play a little more than they do during the regular season. But he just has to learn to quit picking up nickel and dime fouls, careless fouls. You can play aggressive basketball on both ends of the floor, but you have to be smart and not be making dumb decisions."

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