#22/24 Oklahoma State Cowboys (16-5 overall, 6-3 Big 12) at Texas Longhorns (10-12, 2-7)
Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 12:45 P.M. | TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate list)
LRT Consecutive Game #243

The Big 12 conference race has reached the turn, and it is just as competitive as pundits predicted during the offseason. Only one game separates the league’s top four teams, with Oklahoma and Baylor sitting just a game behind that pack.

While the league was supposed to be a battle from spots one through eight, the Longhorns have failed to live up to those expectations. Texas is mired in a tie for eighth place with Texas Tech, a full two games behind West Virginia. The Longhorns have lost three league games in regulation by six points or less and another two in overtime, leaving the team wondering “What if?” as the season starts down the home stretch.

This afternoon, the Longhorns welcome an Oklahoma State team to the Erwin Center that finally has broken through on the road. The Cowboys had won just once in 22 Big 12 road games before pulling off the upset at Allen Fieldhouse last weekend, and now find themselves in the midst of a championship hunt.

Although Texas has knocked off Oklahoma State eight straight years in Austin, that streak is in danger this afternoon. Stat guru Ken Pomeroy gives the Longhorns a 31% chance to win the game, predicting a five-point margin of victory for the Pokes. However, if Texas can manage to pull off the upset at home, it could provide some momentum for the final four weeks of the season, as Myck Kabongo makes his long-awaited return on Wednesday night against Iowa State. That tussle with the Cyclones is the first of four home games Texas will play against the league’s top half down the stretch.

By the numbers

This year’s edition of the Cowboys is the most successful for Travis Ford during his five years in Stillwater, with the team posting great numbers on both sides of the ball. Oklahoma State has a stifling adjusted defensive efficiency that is ranked 10th in the nation, as the team allows opponents to score just 0.864 points per possession. Their offensive numbers are nearly as strong, with the Pokes scoring 1.076 adjusted points per possession, good enough for 55th out of 347 Division I teams.

Their defensive dominance is particularly impressive because they are sound in every area of Dean Oliver’s Four Factors. Oklahoma State’s defensive turnover rate of 22.6% is ranked 58th in the country, while the team also limits opponents to just 29.5% of their offensive rebounding chances. The Pokes also avoid sending their opponents to the line, with a free-throw rate of 31.9%, ranked 89th in the nation. Add in their defensive effective field goal percentage of 44.9%, ranked 43rd nationally, and it’s clear to see why opponents are having such a difficult time finding the net against OSU.

Oklahoma State’s forwards do a great job blocking shots inside, a big reason why the team’s defensive field goal percentage inside the arc is 16th-best in the nation. That’s also a big reason why Cowboy opponents are frequently forced to take shots from the perimeter. OSU opponents take more than 35% of their shots from beyond the arc, a distribution that is one of the 100 highest in D-I hoops. That’s also the only place that Oklahoma State opponents are finding much success, as 34% of those attempts have gone down on the year.

Meet the Cowboys

Freshman point guard Marcus Smart (No. 33) is the face of the program this year for Oklahoma State, and for good reason. Although he’s not a great shooter — only 27.7% from three and 40.2% overall — Smart is a natural leader who puts his teammates in a position to score and manages to make big shots when the pressure is on. As a part of Team USA’s U18 squad, Smart impressed coaches Mark Few and Billy Donovan, who called him the best leader they have worked with.

While Smart averages nearly 4.7 assists per game, he also makes a big difference on the defensive end, where his quick hands pester opposing guards and lead to easy transition points for Oklahoma State. He averages 2.9 steals per game, giving him the nation’s ninth-best steal rate at 5.3%.

The team’s leading scorer is Markel Brown (No. 22), a quick, exciting guard with incredible hops. Brown can put the ball on the floor to create his own shot or get to the rim, and has range to knock down jumpers all over the court. He can explode off the ground in an instant, which makes him good for a highlight-reel dunk or two per game, and that also makes him a very good shot blocker despite being just 6’3″.

Sophomore Le’Bryan Nash (No. 2) was the big freshman name on last year’s squad, but he struggled with the weight of carrying an entire team. This year, he’s not the best and only option for Oklahoma State, and he’s flourishing with a better supporting cast. Although Nash has a good jump shot, he has been too persistent in taking shots from behind the arc, where he’s made only 23.1% of his attempts this season. When he stays near the block to post up or tries to face up other forwards from about 12 to 15 feet, Nash is much more effective.

Senior Philip Jurick (No. 44) is the man in the middle, who is called upon mostly to rebound and score the occasional putback. He’s playing about 20 minutes per game, but still leads the team with more than seven rebounds per game. Jurick ranks in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, and his 6.6% block percentage also ranks 120th for D-I players.

Joining Jurick in the frontcourt is 6’8″ sophomore Michael Cobbins (No. 20), who is actually slightly better at blocking shots. Although Jurick and Cobbins both have swatted 23 shots this year, the sophomore has a block rate of 6.8%. Long and lean, he also has springy hops that make him an excellent defensive rebounder. Cobbins can also knock down hook shots around the paint, and favors the power dribble even though he doesn’t have the big body of a prototypical forward.

Freshman guard Phil Forte (No. 13) has been a lifelong friend and teammate of Smart, and now he’s a key bench contributor for OSU. For Texas fans who remember the historic performance by Keiton Page in last year’s game at Stillwater, Forte could provide some flashbacks. The freshman has an incredibly quick release on the catch and shoot, and has knocked down 36.6% of his threes on the season.

Forward Kamari Murphy (No. 21) is a 6’8″ freshman from Brooklyn who is playing solid minutes off the bench. Built in the same mold as Cobbins, he’s a high-motor guy who works hard on the glass and also has great natural instincts and timing for blocking shots.

Junior Kirby Gardner (No. 1) is a juco transfer from San Bernardino Valley who plays around 11 minutes per game in relief of Smart. He has a great feel for pace, and uses that to his advantage when running the pick and roll with Jurick or the other bigs.

The final member of the rotation is guard Brian Williams (No. 4), who is working his way back from a broken left wrist. After missing the first 18 games of the year due to that injury, Williams appeared against Iowa State and Baylor, logging a total of 14 minutes and six points. Although he is still getting reacquainted with game speed, having Williams back in the mix will be a big boost as the Big 12 race heads down the stretch.

Keys to the game

1) Knock down early threes – Oklahoma State’s defense can be very difficult to crack, as the length on the perimeter makes penetrating difficult, and the solid shot blockers inside add another layer of resistance. The one area where opponents have found success against the Cowboys is on the perimeter, so that means that the Longhorns will need big games from Ioannis Papapetrou (No. 33) and Julien Lewis (No. 14), the only real three-point threats for Texas this afternoon.

In Big 12 play, Papapetrou has made 46.2% of his shots behind the arc, while Lewis has struggled to an ugly 24.4% mark. Lewis has made more than 34% of his attempts on the season, so there is reason to be optimistic that he can break out of his slump sometime soon. If Texas can knock down some threes early, adjustments from the Oklahoma State defense will hopefully open up things a little bit inside the arc.

2) Avoid perimeter turnovers – That aforementioned length gives opposing guards a lot of trouble on the perimeter, while Smart’s quick hands are worth a few easy buckets for Oklahoma State in every game. Texas is still struggling to hang on to the basketball, so this is a very scary match-up for the Horns. If Texas can avoid wasting possessions and giving up fast breaks with dumb perimeter turnovers, they might stay within striking distance of an upset. If not, the Cowboys will likely enjoy their first two-game road winning streak since 2009.

3) Turn back dribble penetration – Oklahoma State is not a team that dumps it in to the standard big man and watches as he does his work. Although Nash has the ability to post up on the blocks, the Cowboys usually employ pick and rolls and dribble penetration to get defenses moving and earn easy looks in the paint. If the Longhorns can keep Smart and Brown from slicing up the defense on the bounce, the Cowboys will have to rely more on perimeter shooting from the likes of Forte. If Texas cannot slow down the OSU guards, the Cowboys could find points very easy to come by.