After losses to OU and Baylor dropped Oklahoma State to 4-4 in Big 12 play, a home game against Iowa State on Monday was a must-win game for the Cowboys if they were going to have any chance of getting back into the conference title race. It was an all-hands on deck situation; the problem for Travis Ford's team is there weren't many hands left.
The first blow came right before the start of the Big 12 season, when starting center Michael Cobbins tore his Achilles, knocking him out for the rest of the year. Cobbins, an extremely athletic 6'8, 230-pound shot-blocker, was their best interior defender and rebounder. Without him, they have been forced into an ultra small-ball lineup, with everyone else in the starting five moved down a position.
The second came on Monday morning, when backup point guard Stevie Clark was kicked off the team after his second arrest in five weeks. While Clark is only a freshman, he is a talented player who gave Oklahoma State 16 minutes a night off the bench, averaging 5.3 points and 2.7 assists a game.
Without Cobbins and Clark, a Cowboys team that was already thin to begin with is now down to a skeleton crew. You saw the end result against Iowa State, when Ford stuck to a six-man rotation through a triple-overtime game, with only Phil Forte getting serious minutes off the bench. As a smaller team without the size to bang in the half-court, Oklahoma State needs to get out in transition as much as possible, but that becomes hard to sustain when the second unit isn't providing a lift.
The Cyclones, who are one of the smaller teams in the Big 12, absolutely destroyed the Cowboys on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 47-41 and pulling down 14 offensive boards. Even worse, Oklahoma State had to stay in a zone to make up for their lack of size and keep their perimeter players out of foul trouble, negating the strength of their roster, the ability of guys like Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Brian Williams to get into their men on defense and force turnovers.
Ford clearly doesn't trust any of his deep reserves, but he's not going to have any choice going forward. If he sticks with an undersized six-man rotation, the losses will start piling up real quick in the Big 12. The road doesn't get much easier for Oklahoma State, as they still have four games against ranked opponents left on their schedule. You can bet bigger teams like Baylor, Texas and Kansas are licking their chops at the idea of posting up Kamari Murphy and LeBryan Nash.
If Ford can figure out some way to cobble together an 8-9 man rotation and shore up the interior defense, there's more than enough talent on hand for Oklahoma State to get things turned around. Smart is a lottery pick and Brown is a first-round talent while LeBryan Nash, Kamari Murphy and Brian Williams all have the talent to make an NBA roster. However, in a conference as good as the Big 12, rolling the ball on the floor and hoping the talent figures everything out isn't going to cut it.
At the same time, if Ford can't make the necessary adjustments or there simply aren't any answers to be found on the OSU bench, don't expect the national media to start analyzing the Cowboys roster. They will go right at Smart's inconsistent jumper and whatever simplistic explanations can be derived from cursory examinations of the box scores. For the most part, they prefer to pin the blame entirely on 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who are still learning the game, regardless of how accurate or fair the explanation is.
With nine games left before the Big 12 Tournament, there's still time for Oklahoma State to figure it out, but they are quickly running out of it. And while Marcus Smart is going to do what he can, he can't fix this roster. Without Cobbins and Clark, the Cowboys just aren't the team they were in the non-conference, when they looked like a national title contender. If Ford has got any cards up his sleeve, now is the time to play them.