Ford's Cowboys: Version 2.0

There are many questions to be answered as the Oklahoma State basketball team enters the 2009-10 season. Who's going to replace four-year starter Byron Eaton at point guard? Will the Cowboys finally find a post presence who can stand up to the likes of Dexter Pittman and Cole Aldrich? How will seven newcomers, including six true freshmen, handle the pressure of playing in the Big 12?

The bigger question, however, is can head coach Travis Ford replicate the second-year improvements seen in two of his previous coaching jobs? In his first head-coaching assignment at the age of 27, the Campbellsville (Ky.) Tigers were 16-17 before turning it around the next season – making a remarkable 12-game improvement to 28-3 while earning an NAIA national tournament appearance in 1999.

Ford's success at Campbellsville and then Eastern Kentucky led to him taking over at the University of Massachusetts, but the Minutemen struggled to a 13-15 record in his first season (2005-06). But again, Ford worked his magic in his second season as UMass finished 24-9 – an 11-game improvement – and the Minutemen earned a share of the Atlantic 10 regular-season championship with a 13-3 league record. Ford's team then defeated Alabama in the first round of the NIT to earn the basketball team's first postseason victory in more than a decade.

Will Ford be able to produce that same second-year magic at Oklahoma State? We'll find out soon enough.

The Cowboys finished Ford's inaugural season in leading the Cowboys with a 23-12 record and the team's first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years. But with less than a month remaining in the season the team appeared to be heading where each of Ford's teams had finished in his first year of coaching them – losing records.

OSU suffered an embarrassing 99-74 loss at Texas on Feb. 10 – its sixth loss in eight games – to drop to 14-9 overall and 3-6 in Big 12 play. It appeared the Cowboys were in serious jeopardy of not only being left out of the NCAA Tournament for a fourth consecutive year, but finishing with a losing record was also a concern among the OSU faithful.

Ford's team rallied behind the play of Eaton and second-team All-Big 12 performer James Anderson to win six in a row, finish fourth in the conference, upset sixth-ranked Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament, and earn a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tourney where they won a first-round meeting with Tennessee and took No. 1 seed Pittsburgh to the wire before losing.

The losses of Eaton (the first player in Big 12 history with 1,250 points, 500 assists and 250 steals) and Terrel Harris (13.9 points and 3.9 rebounds) mean that returning starters Anderson, Obi Muonelo, Marshall Moses and Keiton Page must step up their games.

However, Cowboy fans will find out quickly just how good Ford and his staff are at recruiting. Seven newcomers (and possibly one more junior college transfer in December), including six true freshmen, will be asked to make significant contributions this season.

One newcomer expected to have an immediate impact is 6-foot-8, 235-pound Matt Pilgrim, who arrived in Stillwater this summer after spending last year as a redshirt at Kentucky. Pilgrim was the odd man out when former Memphis coach John Calipari was hired to take over the Wildcats and brought several recruits with him to Lexington. Pilgrim began exploring his options, considering Maryland, Memphis and Cincinnati before eventually deciding on Oklahoma State.

Pilgrim originally played at Hampton University for two seasons before transferring to Kentucky because he wanted to play on a bigger stage. He spent last season going head-to-head with All-SEC player Patrick Patterson, and he made quite an impression on the Wildcat.

"Matt Pilgrim is a man-child. He's a beast. By him practicing and working out with us every day, it is only going to make us better. When he can step on the court, he will be a huge help to Kentucky," Patterson told the Kentucky Sports Report last May before Pilgrim transferred to Oklahoma State.

"He is real tough. It is like we are playing football out there. It's like basketball with pads. He's a big man and able to use his body to his advantage. He can use his wide shoulders and post up low. He has a tremendous leaping ability and can jump in the air high and quick. He's tough on us in practice and that will make us all better," Patterson added.

Ford's previous relationship with the Pilgrim family, developed while recruiting older brother Mike while head coach at Eastern Kentucky, played a role in securing Matt's services.

"I recruited his brother when I was at Eastern Kentucky but that was six or seven years ago. I had heard he wasn't going back to Kentucky, picked up the phone and got a release from Kentucky, called his mom and dad, talked to him, and one thing led to another," said Ford.

But Oklahoma State had to petition the NCAA asking for a waiver of the rule requiring transfers to sit out one year before being eligible to play. The NCAA ruled in August that Pilgrim would be eligible to play this season – and would be classified as a junior – because of the circumstances involving his departure from Kentucky after using his redshirt year last season.

"It's always a nice bonus, a surprise, to pick up a guy who's 6-8, 245 (in the summer)," said Ford. "For a guy that size, he might be the quickest guy I've ever seen from one spot to the next, and from off the floor and up. We call it fast twitch. He's as fast twitch as I've been around for his size. I mean his explosiveness, and we needed some of that physicality added to our team.

"Guys who sit out have to knock off the rust, and it takes time. We're going to expect big things out of him from the beginning, but I'm really going to push Matt, and it's going to be interesting to see if he accepts how hard I push him because he's an NBA player. The only guy who can hold him back is himself. He's got NBA-type talent, and I see it as a challenge for myself to get it out of him, so I'm going to push him."

Pilgrim isn't the only NBA-type talent on the Oklahoma State roster. NBA scouts will be making the trip to Stillwater this season to watch Anderson, the 6-6 junior who led the Cowboys last season in minutes played (33.5 per game) and scoring (18.2 points).

The soft spoken 20-year-old considered entering the NBA Draft last spring but decided to return to Oklahoma State for his third season after getting a taste of what playing in the NCAA Tournament was like last March.

It wasn't a coincidence, in Ford's opinion, that the Cowboys' late-season winning streak occurred when Anderson began playing his best basketball. With the Cowboys facing elimination from the NCAA tourney the final three weeks of the season, Ford put the season on the shoulders of Anderson and Eaton.

Ford and the Cowboys got what they wanted from Anderson, who averaged 20 points and 5.8 rebounds during the final 12 games of the season. He recorded the first double-doubles of his career (27 points-10 rebounds vs. Iowa State, and 30 points-10 rebounds at Colorado). Anderson almost single-handedly led the Cowboys to a near upset of the fourth-ranked Sooners in Norman by scoring a career-high 37 points in the 82-78 loss in the regular season finale.

"We just need for him to make that natural progression from his sophomore year to his junior year," Ford said. "Obviously, he's the main guy with the biggest reputation. He's a guy who I think is one of the best players in the country. But with that said, James has got to have help from other players.

Ford has named Anderson and senior Obi Muonelo as the team captains, and expect them to lead the Cowboys both on and off the court.

After starting the first 24 games, Muonelo found himself on the bench, and his playing time was reduced. He played just 10 minutes and did not score in OSU's 76-55 victory at Colorado in late February. Muonelo scored just two points while playing 11 minutes in the final regular season game at OU.

But then in the postseason, still coming off the bench, he looked more like the player who had 32 points and 14 rebounds in the win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in December. He recorded 18 points and nine rebounds in just 25 minutes of play in a first-round win over Iowa State at the Big 12 Tournament. In five post-season games (three in the Big 12 tourney and two NCAA tourney contests), Muonelo averaged 14.0 points and 7.2 rebounds in 27.4 minutes of play.

"A lot of that last year was because it was so new to him, and I'm expecting it to be better this year," Ford said. "Obi was probably put in the toughest situation of anybody, even though I think it was best for him, because we asked him to play a position he'd never played before. But I think it may be more of his natural position even though he may not be 6-7, but because he's such a physical player."

With the addition of Pilgrim and freshmen Torin Walker (6-11, 245) and Jared Shaw (6-10, 230), Ford envisions Muonelo spending more time at the wing position this season after not playing there any a year ago. "He will play a lot of three this year at the wing position, but he will absolutely 100 percent play a lot of four as well. As with any player, as long as they are making the right decision on defense, and running the offense, he'll play a lot of four," said Ford.

Marshall Moses was all but gone from the team in early January. He had played sparingly in 11 of the Cowboys' first 14 games (not appearing at all in three games), and was averaging only 2.1 points and 1.5 rebounds in the little action that he was seeing. Ford was all but ready to run him off when something unusual happened.

The 6-7, 240-pound post was outstanding with 15 points and 13 rebounds in leading OSU to a 72-61 victory over Texas A&M in the Big 12 opener. Moses went from someone who was the last man on the bench to a starter who recorded six double-doubles, including a 16-point, 11-rebound performance in OSU's 77-75 victory over Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament.

"Marshall Moses has matured mentally, and we hope it continues. Marshall has just really taken the bull by the horns as far as having some success at the end of the year last year and not just leaning on that but wanting more of it, and doing the things he needs to do. He's working extremely hard in the weight room, (and) he's worked hard on the court. So far this preseason he's been a great leader. We just hope all of that continues. If it does, I think Marshall can be an all-conference player. He's improved in a lot of different areas," Ford said.

Anderson, Muonelo and Pilgrim will be keys to the Cowboys' success this season, but Ford realizes what Moses and his continued improvement will mean over the next five months.

"He's ultra-important. This summer I would meet with him and talk to him about why I'm so concerned that you're heading in the right direction, because I want great things for you but also you're a huge component to this basketball team. We can't be successful without him playing well," said Ford.

Sophomore Keiton Page (5-9, 170) or one of three freshmen – Ray Penn (5-9, 165), Reger Dowell (6-1, 180) or Fred Gulley (6-2, 175) – will become the first person to start at point guard since Eaton took over four years ago.

"The number one question mark about this team, and there are a lot of concerns and question marks, but the number one that I get everywhere I go – and I have it too because I wake up every morning asking who's it going to be? – is who's going to be the point guard?" Ford asked. "Now, it's a question mark but it's not a concern because we have a lot of candidates. Keiton is a candidate. He's got to learn to handle pressure better. He's got to embrace that position. Do I think Keiton is a better two than one? Probably, but if these freshmen don't grow up and do the things I like, then it's going to be Keiton. And it could be Keiton if these other guys are playing well. Keiton is going to play 30 minutes a game. The question is where is it going to be?"

If Page ends up playing more at the two-guard position, then look for Penn, Dowell or Gulley to run the point.

"It's interesting that we've got three freshmen, and they're all combo guards. They can all play the two position," Ford said. "They all have different strengths. If you combined all of them, boy you'd have something.

"Ray Penn is more of a jet quick scorer who can really, really shoot it. Fred Gulley is just a workaholic, a winner on every level he's played. He's a little bit taller at 6-3, and more of a defender. Reger Dowell just has a lot of talent. He's got one of the best first steps that I've had. He's athletic and plays above the rim.

"But there's a but for each of them. Fred Gulley has to develop a better jump shot. Ray Penn has to develop the mentality of a point guard, and I'm a leader. Reger Dowell has to develop the work ethic in order to lead a team. If you combined all of these things, then you've got a pretty good point guard spot."

If Page wins the starting point guard position then Anderson will probably be at the two, Muonelo at the three, Moses at the four, and one of the newcomers (Pilgrim, Walker or Shaw) at the five.

Any of the four point-guard candidates can also play the two-guard spot, as well as junior Nick Sidorakis. "Nick has really worked on his ball handling and has gotten better with his ball handling. That's an area that he needs to improve on in order to get more minutes," Ford said.

Anderson, Muonelo, Sidorakis, Gulley and freshman Roger Franklin are the candidates to play at the three.

The 6-5, 220-pound Franklin was the highest ranked of all the Cowboys recruits (No. 74 in the nation by after an outstanding career at Duncanville (Texas) High School. Ford believes that the standout freshman will find his way on the court.

"Roger will find quality minutes," said Ford. "Out of all the freshmen, he's probably ahead of all of them as far as being ready a little bit because he's so physical. He's really impressed me with his work ethic, not that I didn't think he'd work hard.

"He's impressed me with his knowledge. He seems to be ahead of everybody else a little bit in understanding what we want. He picks up things very quickly. He's a guy that's going to play a lot. He can play the three or the four. He'll find his minutes. He shoots the ball better than I thought he did. He's really worked on his foot speed. I've just been impressed with his progression from when I saw him in high school to right now."

Moses became the Cowboys' under-sized inside presence last season and may once again start there, although if Pilgrim makes the adjustment after sitting out a year then he appears to be the favorite to start at the five position.

Two true freshmen – Walker and Shaw – and returning sophomore Teeng Akol (6-11, 230) could also provide depth inside.

"Torin Walker has probably come as far from when we first started individual instruction to right now. He's improved drastically," said Ford. "His footwork has gotten so much better. For a guy who the first week we were wondering if we could count on him this year, to now we're thinking he could play a lot of minutes. He's physically strong enough to do it, and his footwork has come along. He's just one of the most coachable young men I've ever been around.

"Jarred Shaw is just oozing with talent, but he's missing where he wasn't here this summer. Physically he's got to get stronger, and he's got to understand how hard the transition is from high school to college, and the work ethic it takes," Ford continued. "Teeng Akol has come a long way. He's got to continue getting bigger and stronger."

The Cowboys could also add another post player in J.P. Olukemi, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound transfer from Vincennes (Ind.) junior college who plans to be on campus in December. He will have three years of eligibility remaining after averaging 14.9 points and 4.2 rebounds last season as a freshman at Vincennes. It's likely he will redshirt this season and begin playing the 2010-11 season.

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