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OSU Basketball: Previewing The 2013-14 Cowboys

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STILLWATER, Oklahoma -

The unbridled anticipation for Oklahoma State basketball started back in April when, one-by-one, Le'Bryan Nash, Markel Brown and Marcus Smart stepped up to the podium in the Student Union and announced they would return to Stillwater for the following season.

Well, that season starts Friday and this preseason-No. 8 Cowboy basketball team carries expectations not seen in Payne County since 2004.

This season marks the 10-year anniversary of the Pokes' Final Four trip to San Antonio and romp to the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles. No team other than Kansas has won the league since, and Smart and Co. are back to put an end to that run.

Travis Ford's team returns virtually everyone from last year's squad, which lost in the field of 64 to Pac-12 champion Oregon. That loss left a bad taste in the mouths of this crop of Cowboys, particularly Smart, playing a large role in ‘The Big Three' coming back for another go.

Smart, the lone consensus preseason All-American and reigning Big 12 player of the year, leads an athletic, deep and experienced roster that returns 94 percent of its scoring and has upgraded in depth across the board.

And speaking of the upgrade in depth, Ford brought in another impressive haul on the recruiting trail. Oklahoma City native Stevie Clark is the banner newcomer and figures to play a big role in the backcourt rotation and could provide a major scoring threat off the bench. JUCO transfer center Gary Gaskins (6-foot-10) and freshman wings Leyton Hammonds (6'7) and Jeffrey Carroll (6'6) bring added size and versatility, as well, giving coach Ford and his staff plenty of options.

But more important than the incoming talent is undoubtedly the returning core. For the first time since Ford's inaugural season at the helm of the program, this team is ready to make a serious run.

Smart leads the party, but Brown, Nash, Mike Cobbins, Brian Williams, Phil Forte, Kamari Murphy and Co. give the Cowboys a roster than can stand toe-to-toe with anyone in America.

All the pieces are in place to build on last year's resurgent campaign with a transcendent one in 2013-14.

A challenging schedule, a lack of size in the frontcourt and a talent boom in Lawrence, Kan. stand in the Cowboys' way, but as Brown said, this team has "unfinished business" and it won't let anything stand in its way.

And an initial No. 12 ranking from the Coaches Poll and many questioning Smart's decision to come back can't hurt in the motivation department, either.

Projected Lineup

G - Marcus Smart (So.) - 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 3.0 steals

G - Markel Brown (Sr.) - 15.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals

G - Brian Williams (Jr.) - 4.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.8 steals

F - Le'Bryan Nash (Jr.) - 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 46.2% shooting

F - Michael Cobbins (Jr.) - 6.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 56.2 % shooting

Best player: Marcus Smart

This is a no-brainer. Smart was projected to go as high as No. 2 overall in the NBA Draft after becoming just the third player in Big 12 history to be named conference freshman of the year and player of the year. Instead, the ultra-competitive point guard with a linebacker's body decided to come back for his sophomore campaign, launching OSU from fringe-top 25 team to possible Final Four contender. He is the heart and soul of this team and his will to win is unparalleled.

Breakout player: Brian Williams

Williams is potentially the most underrated player on this year's team and could also be the key to how far this team goes in reaching its goals. Williams was injured in practice prior to last season and was initially ruled out for the year, however, he healed faster than expected and played in 14 games, providing a nice spark down the stretch. But he was never 100 percent and virtually no rhythm offensively. But now he's back at full speed and figures to be the glue guy for the starting five or top-flight sixth man, similar to what Stevie Graham provided back in the day for the Pokes. Williams is a capable offensive option and should be better than ever as a junior, but the main reason the Baton Rouge, La., native is high on the watch list is what he brings defensively. He has lock-down potential, giving OSU a legit Melvin Sanders/Marcus Dove/Tony Allen-style stopper, and that added weapon could make all the difference in several games on the schedule. Factor in the fantastic defense already offered by Cobbins and Smart, and the Pokes are sure to cause plenty of problems for opponents.

Team strength: Backcourt

Smart is a star and one of the top-five players in America. Brown has improved exponentially every season he's been in Stillwater and is a dynamic athlete. Williams is finally healthy and brings the team a lock-down defender. If Phil Forte can be more consistent with his shot and highly-touted freshman Stevie Clark transitions well to the college game, this becomes not only the league's best backcourt, it should be in the discussion as possibly the best in the country.

Team weakness: Size

It seems fitting that an OSU team ready to make the most waves since its 2003-04 team should have the exact same weakness -- size. The Pokes certainly don't lack talent in the post with Michael Cobbins, who is arguably the Big 12's best defensive player. Le'Bryan Nash causes plenty of mismatches at the four-spot thanks to his athleticism and range. And 6-foot-8 sophomore Kamari Murphy raised some eyebrows with a solid freshman campaign last season. Add in 6-foot-10 JUCO transfer Gary Gaskins and rumored improvement for 7-footer Marek Soucek, and this doesn't look much like a weakness. That said, even with the athleticism, size is a concern when looking at banging with Kansas and Baylor in the league and top-tier teams that could interrupt a potential Final Four run.

Key Games

Nov. 19 vs. Memphis

Following Gonzaga's trip last season, preseason No. 13 Memphis gives the Pokes a heck of a nonconference opponent visiting Gallagher-Iba Arena for a second-straight season. The Tigers are coming off a 31-5 campaign and a 16-0 romp through their final year in Conference USA. Now in the American Athletic Conference, Memphis will feature one of the nation's best backcourts and will pose matchup problems for most teams it faces. Coach Josh Pastner will likely use a four-guard starting lineup to maximize the team's talent and push his up-tempo style. Guards Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford are not only all highly skilled, they're also all very experienced, as all four are seniors. This matchup is one to circle on the calendar.

Dec. 21 vs. Colorado (in Las Vegas)

The Buffaloes aren't what they were when last these teams met. Colorado's basketball team has benefitted far more from the move to the Pac-12 than its football program, having won the conference title in 2011-12 and making the NCAA Tournament last season. The now-established Buffs are a formidable foe and could be in the Top 25 when these teams clash in MGM Grand Showcase in Vegas. Adding to the intrigue will be a clash of former Big 12 foes. CU is led by one of the Pac-12's best players in junior forward Spencer Dinwiddie, who averaged 15.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3 assists per game last season.

Jan. 18 at Kansas; March 1 vs. Kansas

Do these meetings really need an explanation? They will have massive conference title implications, national attention, raucous environments and will pit arguably the top two players in college basketball -- Smart and Andrew Wiggins -- versus one another. These are not only big games for both teams, they're massive games across the college basketball landscape and are probably the two most anticipated games in the conference this year.

Jan. 27 at Oklahoma; Feb. 15 vs. OU

The Sooners will likely take a step backward this year but this is Bedlam and OU would love nothing more than to play spoiler to OSU's Big 12 title dreams. Oklahoma might not be as good as its NCAA-Tourney team last season, but the Sooners are not devoid of talent and have a deep guard rotation, led by Buddy Hield, Je'lon Hornbeak, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins. Regardless of the talent differential, this is a hate-filled rivalry and that means anything can happen.

Feb. 17 at Baylor

The Bears are viewed almost universally as the league's third-best team behind the Cowboys and Jayhawks. This is a must-win game against a highly-skilled team in a building where no OSU team has won since ... gulp... Jan. 14, 2006. All-everything guard Pierre Jackson might be gone, but this team has arguably the conference's premier front court with 6-foot-9 forward Cory Jefferson and 7-foot-1 sophomore Isaiah Austin.

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