Non-conference schedules can tell you a great deal about where your team stands in comparison to other programs across the country. Or, they can tell you nothing. Sometimes you just don’t have enough data to understand what you’ve got or where you’re going.
Many programs will come through the non-conference portion of the schedule with double digit wins causing confidence to soar before powerhouse teams become consistent obstacles to the Big Dance.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys are familiar with winning before the Big 12 schedule begins, but recent years have seen the Cowboys struggle with the gauntlet the conference has become.
This year, the Pokes sit at 10-2 on the cusp of conference play, a record they haven’t matched since the ‘12-13 season. That year fans witnessed a win against No. 6 NC State and a close loss to No. 10 Gonzaga as OSU held opponents to 56.6 points per game thanks to a stingy defense.
Is this year any different? Maybe.
Here’s what we know:
These Pokes sure can score. Oklahoma State has already eclipsed the 100-pt mark six times this season and averages more than 93 points per contest. Jawun Evans (20.2 ppg) leads the way offensively, but even when he has struggled from the field, bench players have stepped up to pick up the slack. Thomas Dziagwa discovered his stroke as the non-conference schedule wound to a close, but no player has been a brighter spark than Jeffrey Carroll. Though he’s only started one game this season, Carroll is pouring in more than 16 points per game. Keep in mind all this is happening while Phil Forte continues to slump.
The defense is returning, we think. Scoring at that rate certainly helps the win percentage, but limiting the damage on the defensive end is crucial as the Big 12 season gets underway. OSU teams have historically prided themselves on defense, and early signs point to a resurgence, though the Cowboys are still a long way from the defense-first days of Eddie Sutton.
Opponents average 77.4 points against OSU, which includes an relentless 107-point performance from highly ranked North Carolina in the Maui Invitational. Only three other teams have managed to score more than 76. In that ‘12-13 season, non-conference foes averaged 56.6 per game.
Are the struggles against lesser teams anomalies or harbingers? Few teams head into conference play unscathed. Rogers State and Central Arkansas hung around with the Cowboys in Gallagher-Iba Arena. It wasn’t too long ago that no team entering the fabled hall imagined coming away with a victory on OSU’s home court. These struggles early in the season could be a sign of the ongoing learning process for Underwood’s system or they could be a reminder most of the core players came from Underwood’s predecessor. Things take time to develop.
So which games do we look at to help us see what we’re watching?
The Maui Invitational. Each game demonstrated what we need to know about these Cowboys. Though UNC proved relentless on offense, Evans showed the country he is on par with players from more recognized programs. Against Connecticut and Georgetown, OSU went toe-to-toe with traditional powers and proved to be a contender when postseason calls are made. The most important of these was the Georgetown game. Even though UConn is probably a better team (and a better win on the resume), the way the Pokes responded after the loss to the Tar Heels with a strong win over the Hoyas helped us see they can put the past behind them and concentrate on the game at hand.
Tulsa. No, TU isn’t the program it used to be, but the Cowboys had just lost to Maryland and were on the road against an instate rival. They were without their star Jawun Evans, Phil Forte was not only on his shooting slump, but was also very banged up, and Underwood was forced to rely on his freshman. No one would’ve faulted OSU for faltering, but they prevailed with a gutsy performance from Brandon Averette in the absence of Evans and a late jumper from Lindy Waters. Road wins are critical to a successful season and can catch the eyes of the postseason selectors. This game won’t make a huge push, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Wichita State. This was a road win the Cowboys should look to and build on as the season progresses. OSU went into the Shockers’ arena and dominated a solid program without trailing with hot shooting and a defensive effort that held WSU to .365 percent shooting from the field and only three made triples. Because hostile environments dot the Big 12 landscape, a win in Wichita should serve notice to the conference that these Cowboys are dangerous.
The Cowboys have shown they can score with anyone, and Underwood continues to showcase the depth of an emerging and dangerous bench. If the defense can continue to solidify in the early portion of the conference slate, OSU will likely find itself in the top half come tournament time.
The non-conference has given us every indication that these Cowboys are ready to compete against the best the conference has to offer.