Oklahoma State's supporting cast has shined around Marcus Smart

US PRESSWIRE

Players like Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown have played well all season, keeping the Cowboys in games when Marcus Smart struggles to score.

Marcus Smart has not played like an All-American in Oklahoma State's last two games. The sophomore point guard shot 4-for-21 from field during that stretch, including 0-for-10 from three-point range. However, despite the off-nights from their best player, the Cowboys managed to nearly beat Kansas and avoided an upset against West Virginia.

One of the most-hyped NBA prospects in college basketball, Smart has a diverse set of skills that can affect the game on offense and defense. The sophomore is 10th in the country in steals, chips in on the boards (5.8 rpg) and dishes out assists (4.4 apg).

And while Smart is a well-assembled player, he couldn't lift his Cowboys past the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament. To make a deep run in March, Oklahoma State will need contributions from some of the less nationally-heralded players.

Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown have made vast improvements in their games since last season. Nash has improved his shooting percentage from 46 to 52 percent this season, a staggering margin. Brown has upped his scoring, rebounding and assist totals from his junior season, remaining the second-fiddle to Smart.

Fortunately, head coach Travis Ford has assembled a talented and diverse supporting cast for Smart, one that complements his run-and-gun style. Everyone is suited to play in transition, with athletic wings and a deadly shooter to boot.

Brown has become one of the most consistent No. 2 scorers in the country, having failed to score double-digits just once this season. At 31.9 minutes per game, the senior guard averages just a tick more playing time than Smart. He is a much better shooter than his backcourt mate, hitting just less than 50 percent of his shots this season. Here is an example of a high-percentage shot:

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Brown also takes better care of the basketball, averaging better than a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Because of this, Ford has had Brown bring the ball up the floor more often, allowing Smart to move more fluidly in half-court sets.

Nash is coming off a career-game, lighting up West Virginia for 29 points. But the 6'7, 235-pound junior's game is one of efficiency, shooting almost 52 percent from the field and grinding out six rebounds per game. Bad shots are commonly the undoing of Smart, so a wily shot selection from Oklahoma State's primary wing is vital to the team's success. Nash has virtually eliminated the three-point shot from his game, which is useful for a player who has only managed 23.7 percent from deep in his career.

A player who makes a living behind the arc is Phil Forte, Oklahoma State's sixth man. If Forte played for Duke, he would make national headlines as one of the most prolific shooters from downtown. As it is, the sophomore is one of 10 players in the country to shoot 50 percent or better from behind the arc, making 53 of his 106 attempts this season. In the half-court, Forte's presence stretches the floor with his ability to hit from either corner. In transition, Smart and Brown have a chance to get the ball out to their sharpshooter before the defense can get set.

The biggest question mark remaining for Oklahoma State is its frontcourt. When center Michael Cobbins went down with a torn Achilles' just before conference play, the rotation completely changed. Cobbins had been the anchor of the defense, leading the team in blocks at the time of his injury. In his stead, Kamari Murphy slid over from his power forward spot. While Murphy is a nice player on the block, averaging 5.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, the Cowboys are now very thin up front.

Instead of throwing in another big body to occupy the four, Ford decided to go small, with wing Brian Williams playing most of Cobbins' minutes. At 6'5, Williams is more suited as a perimeter defender, putting more pressure on Murphy and Nash to stop dribble-drives in the paint.

Whether or not the thinness in the frontcourt derails Oklahoma State in the Tournament depends a lot on the matchups. Running into Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky would expose a lot of the flimsiness of the interior defense, and I wouldn't pick the Cowboys to win that game. But teams like Duke, Syracuse or Wichita State would have their hands full with this cast of characters. Especially when Smart is looking like an All-American on both ends of the floor. But even when he's not -- even on 3-of-14 shooting performances -- Brown, Nash and Forte can keep the Cowboys competitive with any team in the country.

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