November 9, 2007

Cowboys begin new season tonight

Can a team which loses Mario Boggan and JamesOn Curry actually be better the next season?

It's an interesting question, and one that the Oklahoma State basketball team will begin to answer tonight inside Gallagher-Iba Arena at 8:30 as the Cowboys take on Prairie View A&M in the 2007-08 season opener. The Pokes went 22-13 last year and lost in the first round of the NIT to Marist. While 22 wins is typically a decent season, the way the Pokes' got there was poor. OSU won its first 11 games and 15 of 16 before closing out the regular season with eight losses in the last 10 games.

Definitely not the way a coach wants his first full year on the job to go, but that's what Sean Sutton is facing in year two of his administration in Stillwater. But the 2007-08 season brings a lot of changes, which could be a good thing for a program coming off two-straight trips to the NIT. Since tonight's game is nothing more than an exhibition that actually counts, let's spend some time looking over the Cowboy program as a whole and what to expect from this season.

Last season:
22-13 (6-10 Big 12); Lost 67-64 in the first round of the NIT to Marist
Big 12 preseason coaches poll: 7th place
Off into the sunset: F Mario Boggan (19.0 points per game, 7.6 rebounds per game), G JamesOn Curry (17.3, 3.7 assists per game), David Monds (6.7, 5.0 rpg), Kenny Cooper (4.7, 3.1 rpg).
New on the trail: F/C Martavius Adams (6-8, 255, Fr.), G/F James Anderson (6-6, 195, Fr.), G/F Marshall Moses (6-6, 215, Fr.), G Nick Sidorakis (6-4, 175, Fr.), F/C Ibrahima Thomas (6-11, 238, Fr.), G Brad Garrett (6-5, 188, So.), Anthony Brown (6-6, 225, Jr.).
Projected starting lineup: F Marcus Dove (6-9, 215, Sr.), Thomas, G Terrel Harris (6-5, 195, Jr.), G Obi Muonelo (6-5, 225, So.), Anderson

There's a lot of new to this team, so it's hard to project this upcoming season for the Cowboys. After all, there are basically three new faces in tonight's expected starting lineup, with Anderson and Thomas being true newcomers and Muonelo - who missed 18 games last season - hoping to be healthy the entire year. With the losses of Boggan and Curry, this team will have a decidedly different look in 2007-08. We don't have much to go on, but the Pokes did play two exhibition games in Stillwater in the past week, against in-state schools Panhandle State and East Central. Clearly those teams didn't offer much fight for the Cowboys, as they beat the Aggies 91-54 on Nov. 2 and downed the Tigers on Tuesday, 98-48. Anderson looked good in both games, scoring 28 points against ECU and 15 against OPSU. In the preseason, he shot 41.7 percent from 3-point range. Dove's offensive performance might be on the upswing if the two contests are any indication. The senior averaged 17.5 points against the directional Oklahoma schools. Muonelo scored 17 apiece and Eaton looked good passing the ball, posting 15 assists and only three turnovers in the pre-season. What's all that mean? Not a lot, but it's worth mentioning.

Keeping fit and trim: He's listed at 221 points in the latest media guide, but the latest word as Byron Eaton more in the 205 range. He's struggled with weight issues his entire time in Stillwater, which has limited his playing ability, according to coach Sutton. But this past offseason Eaton reportedly faced the problem head-on, working out and losing the weight Sutton says he needed to lose to reach his McDonald's All-American potential. We've only had two exhibition games to go off of, but it's a case of "so far, so good" for Eaton, who posted a 15-3 assist-turnover mark in the two fake games. The challenge for Eaton is keeping conditioned and gaining momentum. Likely the top option at the point for OSU, he'll need to step up in order to drive the offense.

Picking up where he left off: Back when things were really looking up for the Cowboys early last season, Muonelo was arguably the brightest spot of that initial hot start. Then, he broke his fibula and the Pokes started to go downhill, never seeming the same after the loss of the Edmond Santa Fe Wolf. You can't blame the entire season faltering on his loss, but you can argue it played a part. Before his injury, he averaged double-figures in the point column. He did re-join the team in February, but he wasn't the same, as his highest point output after returning was only nine points against Oklahoma on Feb. 8. So what to expect out of him this season? To keep up his exhibition averages. He put up 17.0 points, 5.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds in the two games. He'll be a full-time starter this year and will be counted on to be a leader on offense.

Senior citizen: With apologies to Tyler Hatch, there's only one senior on this year's team who will see major time on the court, that being Dove. Once Curry made his jump from Orange Country to the NBA, this team became his. He's well-respected and works hard, so he being a leader for a team with seven freshmen shouldn't be an issue. He'll be counted on to become more of a scorer inside and upping his rebound numbers from last year. But his most important role will be leading the team mentally. After all, he's been around for a while, having redshirted during the Final Four season of 2003-04, so he's seen the ups and downs the program has faced in recent years.

Returning to normalcy: Ever since Eddie Sutton came back to Stillwater, the OSU basketball program has seen a resurgence on the court, getting back to the championship levels established by Mr. Iba. But the last two seasons have seen the program slide backward, with two NIT appearances taking the place of the normal NCAA seeds the Cowboys hold in March. It hasn't been a good start to the Coach Sean regime, which technically began late in the 2005-06 campaign and got rolling in earnest last season. After dealing with a short bench and apparent attitude issues with a couple of players last season, both of those problems look to be solved, with a lot of new faces and depth coming into the program. It will be interesting mixing the new guys in with the established players and if Sutton can do that, this just might be a better season than many are expecting, because there is definitely talent on this club. But that doesn't always translate when there are so many new parts to a team. It will be up to Sutton - a part of the program since the early 1990s - to mix the pieces together properly.

Bringing back the rowdy: The coaches, players and fans all take pride in the harsh environment that is Gallagher-Iba Arena. But in the past two seasons, OSU has lost eight games in the Palace on the Plains, which is unacceptable for this program. From the 1998-99 to 2004-05 seasons, the Cowboys lost 10 games at home. During that stretch, OSU won 29 straight home games, Mar. 2003 to Mar. 2005. Even average OSU teams have feasted at home, so it's up this squad to get back to making Gallagher-Iba straight-up Hell for the visitors.

With a tough non-conference schedule, including trips to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational and games against Washington and Pittsburgh, everyone will find out pretty quickly how good this season's edition of the Pokes are. Unlike in the past, no one is expecting OSU to make a run for the Big 12 championship or to take a long dance in the NCAA Tournament, so there won't be the pressure from outside the program to do much. Within the walls of Gallagher-Iba, however, there will be pressure from everywhere to get the program back to its dominant stature. Can it be done? Absolutely. There is talent all over the place and Sutton has seen first-hand how to bring OSU back from the depths of mediocrity. But will it happen? That's a giant unknown right now. The Big 12 is always tough and this year the Pokes aren't expected to do much. Kansas, Texas and Texas A&M are the favorites in the conference and OSU is in the middle of the pack. Even though this is only his second season at the helm, a third-straight no-show in the NCAA Tournament would hurt Sutton and could really put him on the hot seat the next year. That sounds odd considering he won 22 games in his first season, but only two of those wins came in the last 10 regular-season outings. And if you have a poor conference mark and an ugly "Last 10," it's almost impossible to go dancing. While the goals for the program are generally much higher, the Cowboys need to focus on three things: Winning at home, getting to 10 conference wins and topping 20 wins in the regular season. Do all that and OSU should be a mid-level seed in the NCAAs come March.

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