Injuries – one early in the season, one late – limited Phil Forte III and Jawun Evans to just three games together in Oklahoma State’s backcourt in 2015-16. First-year coach Brad Underwood gets the benefit of their return and collaborations this season.
Forte sat out last season as a medical redshirt after suffering an elbow injury in the Cowboys’ third game. Evans’ freshman season was truncated by nine games by a shoulder injury he suffered in February. But he was impressive enough to still be named the Big 12’s freshman of the year.
“I’m excited about that backcourt,” Underwood said. “They need to get some chemistry because they only played three games together but hopefully by the time conference play starts they’ll be cohesive. They trust each other and they love playing together.”
Oklahoma State finished 7-20 and 3-15 in the Big 12 in Travis Ford’s final season as coach. The Cowboys return three players who started more than 20 games but they’ll rely heavily on how Evans and Forte perform.
“That’s a nice security blanket for Brad to have in a season that’s clearly going to be about building the program,” ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “He gets to do it in Year One with one of the best backcourts in the Big 12 and potentially in the country.”
In the last seven games before being sidelined, Evans was averaging 19.5 points, 6.3 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-1 sophomore scored 22 points and had eight assists in the Cowboys’ upset of Kansas and scored 42 in the Bedlam matchup with Oklahoma in Stillwater.
“Evans has got to be near the top of Big 12 players with NBA potential,” ESPN college basketball analyst Reid Gettys said. “He’s got the incredible skill set and you think, theoretically, what would complement him the most? A cold-blooded, dead-eye, knock it down, catch-and-shoot guy.”
Forte filled that role when his high school teammate Marcus Smart played at Oklahoma State. Smart’s bull rushes into the lane caused defenses to collapse and Forte was adept at spotting up for open 3-pointers.
Fraschilla agrees with Gettys that the Evans-Forte combo could be a pick-your-poison situation for opposing teams.
“He has instincts and he reminds me of Chris Paul,” Fraschilla said of Evans. “He proved in the Bedlam game in Stillwater that he can score. He’s a tremendous point guard with great vision and quickness. He has the ability to draw the second and third help defender. That’s gonna make the game easier for Phil. And if you try to take away Phil on the perimeter, that opens things up for Evans to get to the basket.
“It’s a perfect fit.”
Forte, a 5-foot-11 senior, averaged a career-best 15 points a game as a junior in 2013-14. In his career, he’s made 238-of-632 3-pointers (37.6 percent).
“Phil’s a great leader that I’m excited to work with him this season,” Underwood said. “He’s a great scorer, a tremendous shooter with tremendous range. He’s got one of the tightest, quickest releases that I’ve seen in a long time.”
Gettys isn’t shy regarding his assessment of the Evans-Forte combo.
“For the last decade, I’ve always had one caveat – everything I say is … ‘except for Kansas,’” Gettys said. “Except for Kansas, I think Oklahoma State has the best backcourt in the Big 12.”
Gettys will no doubt get a strong argument from Iowa State fans but the point is well taken. Evans and Forte figure to run a productive two-man game this season.
Underwood played at Kansas State under Jack Hartman, who played at Oklahoma State under the legendary Henry Iba. In his three seasons at Stephen F. Austin, Underwood went 89-14. That tied former Butler coach Brad Stevens for the best three-year start to a coaching career. The Lumberjacks upset No. 3 seed West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season. About 24 hours after losing in the second round to Notre Dame, Underwood was hired as the Cowboys’ coach.
“So much of Brad Underwood’s success has been identifying players,” Gettys said. “Nobody in the Big 12 thought that (Stephen F. Austin’s top player) Thomas Walkup could play. Brad recognized his talent and then put him in position to develop. But the players have to buy in to your vision and your culture.
“Can he take what he did at Stephen F. Austin and get it to translate it to Oklahoma State?”
Starting with this season, Evans and Forte will try to help answer that question.