Oklahoma State is a “legacy” program.
From the national championship seasons under the legendary Henry Iba to the resurgence under his protégé Eddie Sutton, the Cowboys have used the past to bolster their present and future.
New coach Brad Underwood has an indirect lineage to the glory days, having played at Kansas State for Jack Hartman, one of Iba’s disciples. Underwood’s background and approach appear to be a perfect fit and a major reason why he was hired to replace Travis Ford.
“I’m an old-school guy from the standpoint of the tradition means a great deal,” Underwood said at Big 12 media day last month.
“To stand on Eddie Sutton court every day, there is 806 wins there with Coach Sutton, two Final Fours. Coach Iba won a couple of national titles. I’ve always said Gallagher-Iba is one of the elite basketball arenas in all of the country, and that excites me, getting that crowd going and getting that fan base excited.”
“This is very special for me and I’m very, very fortunate and very blessed to be back in this great league.”
Oklahoma State fans are hoping that Underwood’s success at Stephen F. Austin transfers to Stillwater. Underwood went 89-14 in three seasons, equaling Brad Stevens of Butler for the most wins by a coach in his first three seasons. The Lumberjacks upset West Virginia, last season’s Big 12 runner-up, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Cowboys were 12-20 in Ford’s final season. Underwood, though, inherits one of the Big 12’s top guard combos. Sophomore Jawun Evans, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year despite missing the last nine games with an injury, will team with senior Phil Forte. An elbow injury in the second game of the season forced Forte to sit out as a redshirt.
“I think that both of those young men are going to have outstanding seasons,” Underwood said.
Improving on last season’s won-loss record will come down to the starters who play with Evans and Forte plus dependable reserves. Senior forward Leyton Hammonds averaged 10.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season. Freshman guard Lindy Waters, a four-star recruit, has impressed the coaches thus far. The biggest question marks involve rebounding and low post scoring.
“I think as any new coach would go through, I think you’re trying to establish your culture,” Underwood said. “I’ve been very fortunate. Our guys are both feet in. They’re committed. Understanding how hard you have to work, understanding the nuances of a new offensive and defensive scheme, all those things take time.”
Oklahoma State at a glance
Coach: Brad Underwood.
Last season: 12-20 overall, 3-15 in Big 12, ninth.
NCAA Tournament: Did not qualify.
Key departures: G Jeff Newberry, F Chris Oliver.
Starters returning: 6-foot-1 Soph. G Jawun Evans, 5-foot-11 Sr. G Phil Forte, 6-foot-8 Sr. F Leyton Hammonds, 6-foot-9 Jr. F Mitchell Solomon.
Top returnees: 6-foot-6 Jr. G/F Tavarius Shine, 6-foot-6 Jr. G/F Jeffrey Carroll.
Newcomers: 6-foot-6 Fr. G Lindy Waters, 5-foot-11 Fr. G Brandon Averette, 6-foot-7 Fr. F Cameron McGriff, 7-foot Fr. C Lucas N’Guessan.
Evans and Forte should be a great combination. Evans is adept at penetrating to score or dish. Forte is an outstanding spot-up 3-point shooter with a blink-and-you-miss-it release. They figure to get the majority of minutes, but finding capable reserves in the backcourt will be an important project.
One of the downfalls of the Ford Era was the annual lack of players who were offensive threats in the low post. That figures to continue this season — the roster lacks any proven scorers in the frontcourt. Hammonds is the team’s top returning rebounder at 5.1 per game. Solomon started 26 games and had modest averages of 3.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
Underwood stresses a high-pressure defensive style and wants a pace that produces 75 possessions a game. That means that Oklahoma State might need up to nine players in the rotation; nine players averaged over nine minutes a game for Underwood at SFA last season. Count on players emerging that few outside of Stillwater have heard of.
With the other nine schools full vested and counting on basketball success, moving up in the standings requires program building. Underwood has embraced the community, and the fans are hungry for the Cowboys to be relevant again. This season will be more about laying the foundation to achieve that.