Oklahoma State of Mind

- Ky McKeon

The Big 12 is once again the nation’s best league this season, boasting the toughest collection of teams top to bottom (and by a wide margin). In fact, this year’s version of the Big 12 is the highest-rated conference since the 2004 ACC, a nine-team league that sent six to the Tourney, per KenPom.com. While top-rated squads like Kansas, Baylor, and West Virginia hog the spotlight; it’s a middle-tier school that holds the distinct honor of being the most exciting entertainment east of Los Angeles. I’m talking of course about the Oklahoma State Cowboys, a squad led by one of the great up-and-coming coaches in the country and a stud sophomore point guard.

After finishing the non-conference slate 10-2 with wins at Wichita State, and versus UConn and Georgetown on neutral floors, the Pokes looked destined to prove last season’s 12-20 performance was an outlier, a consequence of a young team not gelling under a coach who had worn out his welcome in Stillwater. Travis Ford’s exit to Saint Louis paved the way for the hiring of Brad Underwood, the former Stephen F. Austin skipper who achieved an absurd 89-14 record, including a gaudy 53-1 Southland mark, during his three seasons in Nacogdoches. Despite the quick start under Underwood (hehe), the Pokes stumbled out of the gates in conference play to a 0-6 record, leading to a collective groan from somewhere in the middle of the country.

Alas, Okie State has set to quell the cacophony by winning eight of their last nine tilts, vaulting their Big 12 mark to a respectable 7-7. With resume-bolstering wins at West Virginia, TCU, and Texas Tech, the Pokes now look to be a shoe-in to the Field of 68 and a dangerous threat to waltz into the Sweet 16 and beyond. In this edition of deep dives, we focus our magnifying glass on what has led to the Orange and Black resurgence.

Much like Lex Luthor’s success against Superman can be almost exclusively attributable to Kryptonite, so can the Cowboys’ success this season be almost exclusively attributable to their offense. The Pokes rank 2nd in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (per KenPom.com), and 1st in the Big 12, which allows them to triumph over fierce competition in spite of their 145th ranked defense (dead last in conference play).

Underwood has instilled a fast-paced brand of basketball upon his talented, athletic team, encouraging attacking in transition off steals and defensive rebounds. The Pokes play at the nation’s 76th fastest pace in the country, and rank 20th in initial field goal attempt percentage in transition (per Hoop-Math.com). This style is made possible, and executed to perfection, by the brilliant Jawun Evans, one of the best point guards in the country. Evans is perhaps the fastest player I’ve ever seen stride down a basketball court. Just look at how quickly he gets down the court in this transition opportunity:

Evans’s inhuman combination of speed and vision allows him to pick apart a reeling defense on the run. The guard feasts on defenders losing their men for an easy back-cut to the hoop, or attempting to impede his progress, allowing kick-outs to wide-open three opportunities. His ability to make the right read nearly every time in the open floor is akin to Neo figuring out the Matrix during his final battle versus the malevolent Agent Smith.

Evans ranks 5th in the country in assist rate (1st in the Big 12), yet only turns the ball over 16.2% of the time (that is stupid low for a point guard that uses 32.8% of his team’s possessions).

As beautiful as Okie State’s transition offense is (and it is), their half court attack is something to behold as well. The Pokes run a four-out, one-in set, with an emphasis on their big man, usually 6’9’’ junior Mitchell Solomon, setting up camp at one of the elbows. From this look, the offense usually unfolds in the following ways:

  1. Solomon catches the ball at the elbow, creating:
    • Turn-and-face spot up
    • Hand-off to a cutting guard (usually Evans)
    • Kick out to a wing shooter (Leyton Hammonds, Phil Forte, Jeffrey Carroll)

2. Evans receives a ball screen, leading to a pick-and-roll opportunity with shooters on either side.

3. Dribble action from Evans while wings use Solomon screens in the middle of the lane in an attempt to free themselves for open looks. 

4. Pass to the wing leads to an open baseline drive to the bucket. Carroll especially loves this action. With Solomon staying high towards the top of the key, Carroll has free reign to barrel to the bucket for an easy deuce.

My favorite action out of this set is one Underwood utilizes several times per game. The ball handler will dribble to one side of the floor, while the three wings/guards cut through to the other side of the court, creating an overload scenario. Solomon then sets a ball screen for the handler (many times this is Phil Forte in this particular action) which in turn creates a 2-on-2 situation that allows the ball-handler to either pull-up, beat his man to the bucket, or dump off the rock to the roll man. It really is gorgeous:

Oklahoma State’s offense makes them a threat to compete in every game they play this season. While their defense may make them vulnerable to an early postseason exit, Brad Underwood’s squad is equipped to overwhelm even the strongest of spirits with their relentless bucket making. Top seeds beware: