Oklahoma State missed the NCAA tournament the last two seasons. With the way the Cowboys have been playing the early part of this season, the drought should end in March.
Oklahoma State is off to a 4-0 start and it made a very impressive showing in winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off last weekend. The Cowboys got past Akron 69-65 in the first round, then downed Tennessee 62-45 in the semifinals before whipping a strong North Carolina State team 76-56 in the championship game. That came after the Cowboys opened with a lackluster 73-65 victory over UC Davis.
"I thought we played against three teams that will be in the NCAA tournament in Akron, Tennessee and NC State," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. "NC State might have the most potent offense we will see all year. Their top six guys can score in so many different ways. NC State is one of the top teams in America and we competed with them in every aspect."
Sophomore guard Le'Bryan Nash is leading the way for Oklahoma State as he is averaging 18.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 37.0 minutes a game. Nash's 110.0 free throw rate is the 19th-best mark in the country.
However, it is freshman point guard Marcus Smart who is generating the most buzz. A top-five recruit a year ago as a high school senior in Flower Mound, Texas, Smart has lived up the hype by averaging 15.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 35.3 minutes. He is 80th with a 35.4 assist rate and is capable of playing any position but center. Smart was at his best against North Carolina State as he has 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
"Marcus just got hot and got into a rhythm," Ford said. "He can do so many different things on the court to help us win."
Nash was Oklahoma State's second-leading scorer last season with a 13.4 average as the Cowboys were 15-18. However, his scoring average is up this year, Oklahoma State's winning percentage is up and Nash is meshing seamlessly with Smart in the Cowboys' backcourt.
"LeBryan Nash played with such a flow throughout the tournament and it was just fun to watch," Ford said. "He and Marcus do so many different things well."
Junior guard Markel Brown gives Oklahoma State a third perimeter scoring threat. He is averaging 13.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 37.8 minutes.
"He's a guy that can score the basketball, is very athletic, is a good defender," Ford said. "He's the most experienced player on the team and he understands what we want done better than anybody."
Smart is one of three freshmen starting for Oklahoma State along with guard Phil Forte and forward Kamari Murphy. Shooting is Forte's forte as he is knocking down 47.4 percent of his three-point attempts while averaging 10.3 points, 0.8 rebounds, 0.3 assists and 27.5 minutes. Murphy's averages are 4.0/7.3/0.5/25.0.
While some of the individual offensive numbers have been good for Oklahoma State, which returns to action Sunday by hosting Portland State, defense has been a hidden asset early in the season. The Cowboys are 17th in the nation with an 89.8 adjusted defensive efficiency rating and eighth in two-point field goal percentage allowed with 34.8. Oklahoma State is also the 21st-least experienced team among the 347 in Division I with its players averaging just 1.06 seasons of college experience.
"We have got some pretty good players," Ford said. "And we are extremely, extremely young. We are a team that as the season goes along is going to get better."
Oklahoma State is already looking pretty good.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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