It is neither a good feeling nor a good sign when an athletic director has to come out after an NCAA tournament appearance and pledge his allegiance to the head coach.
This, though, is the tricky hand dealt to Travis Ford. After the Oklahoma State Cowboys lost to Oregon in their NCAA opener, athletic director Mike Holder was forced to end speculation that Ford’s time in Stillwater might be coming to a close by issuing a statement reaffirming his coach’s job security. (It should be noted, Holder’s endorsement came after money man T. Boone Pickens tweeted his support.)
Ford has a more than adequate record in his seven years at Oklahoma State, 143-91, but it’s his lack of conference success (60-65 in Big 12 games) and postseason wins that has fans broiling. The Cowboys are 1-4 in the NCAA tournament under Ford, including three consecutive appearances and three consecutive losses.
The reality is that Oklahoma State probably overachieved this season. Retooling after losing Marcus Smart to the NBA, the Cowboys cobbled together a season that included a 17-7 start, with wins over Texas, Kansas and Baylor in the wildly competitive Big 12. That success nearly proved to be Ford’s undoing, as the reality crash came down the stretch with seven losses in the final eight games.
Things don’t promise to be much less complicated this year. Le'Bryan Nash is gone, taking with him his 17.2 points and 5.7 rebounds. Michael Cobbins, his frontcourt mate, also leaves as does point guard/LSU transfer Anthony Hickey.
That’s three of the Cowboys' top four scorers out of the lineup and a lot of role players left to find their way in a conference that doesn’t exactly allow for easy growth.
What the immediate future holds: There is a bright spot -- a very bright one -- and his name is Jawun Evans. One of the top point guards in the country, Evans is a potential game-changer for Oklahoma State and Ford. He’s a true point, looking to pass first, but able to also score on his own. The Dallas product and McDonald’s All-American likes to push the ball and if the rest of the Cowboys can keep up, could help make for a high-possession, potent style for OSU.
It’s a lot to ask one player to change the complexion of everything but that’s really what Evans will need to do.
He’ll be partnered in the Oklahoma State backcourt with senior Phil Forte, making for a pretty good combo. The sharpshooting Forte knocked down 38 percent of his 3-pointers last year, averaging 15 points per game, and with a point guard who loves to drive and dish as much as Evans, those numbers could be even better.
The only other recruit so far signed by the Cowboys is Igor Ibaka -- little brother of Oklahoma City’s Serge. The junior college addition is a solid rebounder and will give returnees Anthony Allen and Mitchell Solomon a run for their money.
Aside from Evans, maybe the most critical players will be Jeff Newberry and Tavarius Shine. Newberry played primarily off the ball last year, letting Hickey handle the point guard duties and that won’t change with Evans in control. What needs to change -- Newberry’s numbers. The junior college transfer was solid, averaging 6.7 points per game, but Ford needs more production out of him with Hickey gone.
Shine got more playing time as the season progressed, delivering 12 points against Oregon in the tourney, but he still averaged just 3.4 points per game. He, too, needs to be more productive to help make up for what the Cowboys have lost in Nash. Jeffrey Carroll and Leyton Hammonds could also contribute on the wing, which is where OSU is most vulnerable.
Ford still has two more scholarships to give. He’s on the short list of power forward Shawntrez Davis, rated 28th at his position by ESPN. He’s a strong rebounder and shot-blocker, and would be a big late addition if Ford can woo Davis away from the rest of his suitors: Boston College, Georgia, Maryland, Purdue, Tennessee and Georgia Tech.
This won’t be an easy year for Oklahoma State and logically that ought to buy Ford a little more time. But expectations and logic don’t always go hand in hand.