Early season tournaments are one of the most fun traditions in college basketball. It's a way for teams to break in their freshmen and for top schools to compete against each other. Oklahoma State didn't get the luxury of playing in a fun or exciting early season tournament last season. Instead, they took on Towson, George Mason, and Long Beach State in the Gildan Charleston Classic.
Oklahoma State went 180 degrees this season as they're going to compete in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational alongside UCONN, North Carolina, Oregon, Wisconsin, Georgetown, Tennessee and Chaminade. The Maui Invitational is usually considered the premier early season tournament as it has a good history of hosting the eventual NCAA championship team.
The bracket won't be announced until closer to the tournament, although this is the perfect tournament to help break in a new era. With a new head coach in Brad Underwood and a promising back court featuring Phil Forte III and Jawun Evans, this is the kind of test that will be good for the Cowboys to see how they match up against some of the best teams in the nation.
Despite the fact that Oklahoma State will likely be viewed as an underdog against everyone besides Chaminade, they couldn't be in a better position to start the season. They'll have a chance to compete against three teams that went to at least the Sweet Sixteen last season, who are also returning NBA caliber players.
In a way, this tournament is like initiation for Underwood. Just like Oklahoma State will be this season, he dealt with an undersized roster at Stephen F. Austin last season where he only had one seven-footer, and he only played 6.4 minutes per game. That's because he sped up the game and out-hustled the opposing team who would then fold under pressure and make carless mistakes. It's not to say that Oklahoma State is going to enforce their will on North Carolina and shock them, however, he'll have a coaching battle in nearly every game, against a Power 5 school, to show if he is worth the hype.
Whether it's Roy Williams, Kevin Ollie, John Thompson III, Greg Gard or Dana Altman, Underwood will have to bring his A-game. Luckily, like previously noted, he knows how to deal with an undersized team.
Size could end up being a deciding factor and put Oklahoma State down early in a lot of games if they don't control the paint. Nigel Hayes of Wisconsin and 6'10" freshman Tony Bradley of North Carolina could easily cause major problems for the Cowboys if they don't make stopping them a top priority.
The Cowboys will have to play similar to how Stephen F. Austin did last season if they want to win games. They'll have to speed up the tempo and rely on Forte, Evans and incoming freshman Cameron McGriff. Not only will speeding up the tempo help cover up their undersized roster, it will create easier shots if they're able to get out in transition.
Easier shots are a must for a team who only shot 42.3 percent from the field last season and 32.8 percent from behind the arc. It won't be easy to get potential top-ten teams to change their games, especially when they're all very well coached, but it'll be a learning experience for a young coach and team.
While there will be a lot of great coaches in store, the early development of Jawun Evans and Cameron McGriff is what will be most interesting. During the early season tournament last season, Forte injured his elbow and ended up missing the rest of the season. Oklahoma State knows the fifth year guard is a leader and will give quality production, however, how will his play compliment Jawun Evans?
Even though he was a freshman, Evans took over as the team's go-to-guy and ended up leading the team with 12.9 points and 4.9 assists per game. They'll have a couple of regular season games before Maui to get comfortable with each other, and they could end up being the surprise duo of the tournament.
Evans is a very good passer - finished with the second most assists by a freshman in OSU history - and having a three-point shooter like Forte next to him will help create a lot of opportunities. It'll help space the floor more to create open lanes for Evans to drive to the basket since he's not a three-point specialist like Forte. It may not happen right away, however, learning on the fly against players like Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks of Oregon or Nigel Hayes of Wisconsin will show them what they need to work on.
It's a tournament that's featuring more than a couple of tournament teams. The Cowboys are coming off a disappointing season and this is a chance to show the college basketball world that they're turning the program around.
Also, it's a chance for Jawun Evans to make a name for himself. He's not going to be a player many people are looking out for heading into the tournament, however, he could put his name on the national map if he plays well, especially after being named Big 12 Freshman of the Year.