When most people plan a weekend in Puerto Rico, they plan to visit a couple of colonial forts, catch some rays and maybe, if they’re very nerdy like me, check out the giant radiotelescope at Arecibo. Travis Ford and his Oklahoma State Cowboys may very well do some of that stuff, but they won’t put on the flip flops until they’ve gotten everything they can out of Pistol Pete’s butt-kicking boots.
The Cowboys were chosen third in the preseason Big 12 poll, but they have a golden opportunity to do something Kansas and Baylor — the programs chosen first and second — have not done. They can emerge from the very early gauntlet with a spotless record and a marquee win over a ranked opponent if things roll their way this afternoon. Granted, they have to play superlative ball to take down the No. 6-ranked NC State Wolfpack, but that scenario seems much more believable after the 62-45 pasting they laid on a talented Tennessee team in Friday’s semis.
It took Phil Forte free throws in overtime to get past Akron in the first round in Puerto Rico, and the Cowboys were expected to struggle without injured big man Jean-Paul Olukemi, but stellar play from the backcourt has kept Oklahoma State on an even keel. Philip Jurick was a serviceable option in the middle against Tennessee, but the trio of LeBryan Nash, Markel Brown and Marcus Smart did it all, combining for 47 points and an impressive 22 rebounds in the win over the Volunteers, who missed the tenacious play of Jeronne Maymon.
NC State is rather a different animal. Kenpom.com rates the Wolfpack’s interior defense 18th-best in the nation, and the perimeter defense is top-100 caliber. Overall, OSU’s defense is rated even better, but the Cowboy scoring attack has been a bit flaccid thus far. Without scoring big men, it may well be too one-dimensional to compete with the uber-talented Pack. But Travis Ford’s team is talented, hungry and seems to be gelling under tough circumstances rather than wilting and making excuses.
There may be plenty of empty seats in the Coliseo de Puerto Rico when the game tips at 6:30 pm tonight, but mainlanders should head for the nearest TV. At bare minimum, you’ll have a courtside view of the Markel Brown show. And who knows? You might see a Big 12 challenger emerge.