Oklahoma State Cowboys' NCAA Tournament Hopes Are On Byron Eaton's Shoulders

Curtis FinchumCorrespondent IFebruary 19, 2009

First-year head coach Travis Ford inherited a quality amount of talent for his first Cowboy squad. Oklahoma State has two former McDonald's All-Americans on their roster, Senior Byron Eaton and Sophomore James Anderson, and also has some very athletic guards in the Big XII with Senior Terrel Harris and Junior Obi Muonelo. He even inherited two of the best guards from the state of Oklahoma in Sophomore Nick Sidorakis and Freshman Keiton Page. 

What Ford lacks is quality big men, with no post player above the height of 6'8". Ford must work with what he has—Sophomores Marshall Moses at 6'6" and Malcoln Kirkland at 6'8", as well as Senior Anthony Brown standing at 6'7". So now he puts the pressure of grabbing boards upon two of his young guards, Muonelo at 6'4" and Anderson at 6'6", who are forced to play the power forward position in Ford's offense.

So far, the Cowboys are 15-9—5-6 in conference play—and have one of the toughest schedules in the country. They have played some of the top teams in the country:  Michigan State, Gonzaga, Missouri, Kansas, and bedlam rival Oklahoma (who the Cowboys will be playing again toward the end of the regular season).

Playing in a conference whose top two teams are far and away above the competition, the Cowboys have a chance to battle their way up in the standings to improve their seed in the Big XII Tournament.

However, its the NCAA Tournament that has eluded Eaton and Harris in their four-year career at Oklahoma State. Harris has thrived in the fast-paced offense thus far this season, but Eaton has been inconsistent. Eaton has been the emotional leader toward the end of every close game this season, pounding on his chest every time he makes a momentum shifting play. 

For the Cowboys to even stand a chance to gain an NCAA Bid, Eaton must play at an extremely high level and be a leader in the locker-room. For Eaton, it can no longer be a one man show. Instead of forcing the ball down the other teams throat every chance he gets, Eaton must trust his teammates by driving and kicking the ball out to his open shooters (Sidorakis, Harris, Anderson, Muonelo and Page) as well as dishing it to his open but few big men (Moses, Brown, and Kirkland). 

Eaton is the team's third leading scorer (14.6 points per game) and is second in the conference in assists (6.0 assists per game). Eaton's career, though full of scrutiny from some fans, has been one of the best Oklahoma State's history even though his highlight moments are hidden by his monumental mistakes.

He's the Oklahoma State career leader in steals, and second in assists (behind Cowboy great Doug Gottlieb) and he needs to continue to play at the level he's been playing so far during the conference schedule. 

Even though the Cowboys two leading scorers are Anderson (18.0 points per game) and Harris (14.8 points per game), its Eaton who has the pressure of the Cowboys NCAA Tournament hopes upon his steady shoulders. His play and ability to reach the free throw line at any given time during a game is key. He must also stay out of foul trouble. The mistake margin for the Cowboys is extremely thin—an entrance to the NCAA Tournament or the NIT is on the line. 

Can Eaton lead his squad to the big dance, or is it yet another trip to the NIT for the Eaton and Harris? With the season coming to a close, and postseason play around the corner, only time will tell if Eaton can withstand the weight and do something he's never been able to do: compete in the NCAA Tournament.