When the Cowboys introduced Travis Ford as their new head coach, gone were the days of Henry Iba grind ball. It's not that the Pokes wouldn't play defense, but they would play a new type of D. Instead of staring down half court sets, Coach Ford was going to stick his team on their opponents at full or three-fourths court.
On offense, instead of bleeding the clock to single digits and getting a good set shot, Ford was going to up the number of possessions per game off the fast break created by increased court pressure.The Cowboys still wanted to wear down their foes, just in a different way. If Coach Sutton's goal was to make each possession 35 seconds of pure frustration for the opposing team, Coach Ford had the entire game in mind.
Coach Ford was bringing the good old "40 minutes of Hell" to Stillwater.
Or at least that is how the story went. The Cowboy faithful became well aware of what "Eddie Ball" looked like. They expected Sean Sutton’s teams to look quite similar. But when Travis Ford took the helm last year, they knew that Ford’s team would look different.
The Question on everybody's mind was, "what will Travis Ford ball look like?" Although the crowds at Gallagher-Iba Arena have been given glimpses, the question hasn't been fully answered.
Undoubtedly, the two Cowboy squads that have played for Coach Ford already look different than what immediately preceded them. However, the transformation is still incomplete. The primary reason for this? Coach Ford demonstrates one of the best traits any coach can have—he adapts his system to the talent he has.
Many coaches willingly fall back on the "honeymoon" period of good will at the beginning of their tenure at a new job to recast the program in their own image. The sight can often be quite ugly. Not only are the fans in for a year or two of losses, but it really becomes a sour deal for the previously recruited players.
Unlike the pros, where one can cash a paycheck while waiting for a contract year to shine and attract attention, kids have to decide if playing well on a mediocre-to-awful team is enough to get noticed, or if a year waiting on the bench in order to transfer is worth their time. Even if it is "necessary," it sure is a bum deal for fans and players alike.
In this regard, Coach Ford is a breathe of fresh air. Coach Ford implemented as much as he could of his fast-paced vision. However, he stopped well short of forcing the 2008-09 Cowboys into imitating the 1990s Kentucky Wildcats. He didn't even demand they look like his UMass and Eastern Kentucky teams.
Instead, Coach Ford spent the first part of the season testing the Pokes to see what parts of his vision they could handle, and the rest of the way he adapted his demands to the realities of his current personnel. The result?
A run into the Big Dance, including a win over Tennessee, and a hard fought loss to a Pitt team that over-matched them. Fans were ecstatic after being left out of the tournament for what seemed forever in Stillwater terms, and Byron Eaton was given an honorable senior send off, proving himself to be a leader many thought he would never be after disappointing sophomore and junior years. The 2008-09 season was about as successful as any Poke fan could imagine.
But what last season was not, what it could not be, was a complete look into the future of Cowboy basketball.
First of all, it was obvious that Coach Ford was not in love with the fact that last year's Cowboys depended completely on Eaton's leadership.The offense moved through the senior Point Guard, and if he got into foul trouble, the Cowboys struggled. Beyond the fact that no coach likes the entire offense to hinge on one player, Coach Ford gives further clues that this is not the future the Pokes have in store.
If the John Lucas III floor general model was what Coach Ford had in mind for the future of Cowboy Basketball, there is no way his first recruiting class would have included three point guards.There's no way that it would have included two similar type big men in the 6'10" Shaw and the 6'11" Walker (both listed as forward/centers).
The 2010 recruitment list looks similar, but with the PG position filled up, the class instead boasts a bevy of small forwards and power forwards. Coach Ford does not appear to be looking for a traditional college team. He is not looking for a team composed of the "floor general," the "shooter," the "driver," the "defensive expert", and the "big man" down low.
Ford's recruiting classes evoke a different image. With interchangeable parts, wave after wave of players can be thrown out in different combinations. If this is the case, the hope is not only to confuse offenses, get turnovers, and score off the fast break, the idea is to have enough players to burn the engines at 100 percent capacity the entire game. The idea is to stoke the fires of the "40 minutes of hell" model.
Clearly, this year's Pokes are not quite stoking that fire. Anderson, Paige, and Penn all average 30+ minutes a game, and Moses is right there with 28. These four players play the bulk of available minutes, and Muonelo is not far behind with about 25 minutes per game.
Even the Kansas Jayhawks, who by no means envision themselves as a Pitino-esque team, do not have such a discrepancy. In fact, no one on the Jayhawks currently averages over 30, although Collins is close.
Last year’s Missouri Tigers team, a bona-fide "40 minutes of Hell" team if there is one, had two players average 28 and 26 minutes a game. Three others where in the 20s, while 10 players total averaged around double digit minutes. With the constant pressure, last year's Tigers forced 8.4 turnovers a game, while this year's Pokes average 4.6 per contest.
The Tigers also led the nation last year in assist-to-turnover ratio at a whopping 1.6 to one. The Pokes this year average one assist to each turnover. The Tigers averaged more possessions and points last year (approximately 73 and 81 a game) to this years Cowboys as well (approximately 70 and 77 a game).* At least for the time being, Oklahoma State is not exhibiting the same traits as a high pressure team like Missouri.
Granted, one could ask if any team Ford has coached so far looks like the 2008-09 Mizzou squad. Looking at the stats of Ford's UMass and E. Kentucky teams, one could argue that they look far more like the Cowboys last two campaigns than anything Mike Anderson has pulled off with the Tigers.
Perhaps the hype coming in was a bit misleading? It very well could be, although a few factors could make sense of these stats. First of all, Oklahoma State seems to provide, for the first time, a place where Coach Ford can go find the type of players he wants for his system.
As it was pointed out above, Ford is good about changing his game plan to his talent; perhaps this is the first time he can recruit the talent to fit his vision. If so, it would be understandable that the stats don’t quite match expectations.
Second, the Pitino-style fast pace that Ford played under during his time at Kentucky is not the same as the Arkansas type that Anderson's Tigers bring to mind. Without throwing out all the stats, Pitino's last few Louisville campaigns look more like the 2008-09 Cowboys than the Tigers. So perhaps comparing the Pokes to last years Tigers is a bit of a stretch.
However, a small identity crises still looms over this year's team. While some have made a good case for the problem being a lack of a leader akin to Byron Eaton, one has to wonder if this year's team is more of a transition team than last year's Pokes could afford to be.
Six newly minted freshman sit on the bench, with junior Matt Pilgrim (from Kentucky, of course) rounding out the half of the team that are strictly Coach Ford additions. Every team needs a leader, but not all leaders do their leading in the same fashion. A leader on a team where no one plays over 30 minutes will look much different than Byron Eaton.
Is it simply the case that we have not seen a real “Travis Ford” team yet?
With the way Ford is recruiting, perhaps a more drastic overhaul is taking place, and this year's team is demonstrating the growing pains involved in such a venture. Whatever the case may be, Coach Ford must once again be commended for not pouring the old wine into new wine skins too quickly. Although it is still early in the season, most teams would kill for a transition season to start out 8-1.
*I will point out that last year, Missouri and Oklahoma State were practically tied in possessions per game. I would have lost this bet! In fact, last years Pokes team looked similar to Missouri in points scored (80.9) and steals (7.6), although their assist-to-turnover average was still one to one.