STILLWATER — Just days after a bombshell struck the Oklahoma State basketball team, the Cowboys had to start their 2021-22 season.
Banned from postseason play, the Cowboys kicked off their campaign with an exhibition game Friday night in Gallagher-Iba Arena against Central Oklahoma. OSU won 76-68. Here are five thoughts from the game.
1. Family Supports Family
Gallagher-Iba Arena was by no means full Friday night, but there were 8,369 people in attendance to watch the Cowboys play a Division-II school.
To put that in perspective, there were 3,198 people in GIA to watch OSU play East Central in 2015. Friday’s attendance was the most people at an OSU exhibition game since at least the 2015-16 season, and by a good margin.
The NCAA’s decision has galvanized the OSU family like tough times seem to galvanize the OSU family. The entire OSU roster filed into the media room after the game and made it known they appreciated those who came out but want the full 13,611. But in his news conference, OSU coach Mike Boynton said the perspective isn’t lost on him.
“It meant everything to me, and I hope our players understand how unique that is,” Boynton said. “… I went to bed on Wednesday, after not sleeping Tuesday night, pretty late, and I was pretty beat up, to be honest. And I woke up, and I just told our fans this, I woke up on Thursday morning excited because I know the type of people that support this program. So I’m not surprised, although it’s not usual. I’m not surprised because I’ve been here long enough to see this community and this fanbase rally around its teams and offer support in really, really difficult moments, and tonight was another example.”
2. Bronchos Nearly Zone Pokes to Death
With all the outside noise that has hit the OSU basketball program, there was a game the Pokes had to play, and it was tighter than expected.
UCO ran a little 1-3-1 zone and a little matchup zone, not things coaches put a ton of preseason practice into playing against, but credit UCO coach Bob Huffman. He dug into the bag of tricks when going against superior athleticism.
Just because this game was closer for longer than it should’ve been, I don’t think these teams are nearly as close in talent level as the score suggested. As the season rolls on, expect the Cowboys to smooth out some edges to their zone offense (hitting shots will be a big part in that), but Boynton said with the struggles his squad had with it Friday night, he’d expect to see some more of it soon.
“That’s part of it,” Boynton said. “I’m never here to make excuses, but it’s good for us. … I would imagine we’ll see it in a couple more games. Tonight’s game was on ESPN+. I would imagine UTA got the film. Maybe they feel like that was a good strategy for them as well. We got some film, we can go back and start trying to get better on offense starting on Sunday.”
3. A Surprise in the Starting Lineup
Since this roster was constructed, I was asked almost weekly who I thought would start. In none of the scenarios that I gave did I mention Donovan Williams.
The Cowboys went with a starting five of Avery Anderson, Rondel Walker, Isaac Likekele, Williams and Moussa Cisse. Anderson, Walker, Likekele and Cisse were fairly expected, but the Williams selection came out of left field.
A four-star prospect, Williams struggled in his freshman season before a knee injury ended it. He played in only six games where he averaged 5.3 minutes a game and didn’t score a single point. That led to some mental health struggles he was open about dealing with.
He had three points and five rebounds against UCO. He was an elite-level scorer in high school, but Boynton said some humility has helped him become more scrappy and find minutes on the floor.
“Donovan Williams walked onto this campus last July, and he knew that Cade (Cunningham) was going to be the No. 1 pick and he believed he was going to be the No. 2 pick,” Boynton said. “That’s where he was last July. And then it didn’t go well. It didn’t go close to that well, and then injury, and then question of, ‘Is he good enough?’ You know, the psychological warfare that I’m sure he went through last year really affected him. We talked about his struggle mentally. He’s been in a much better place, understanding his role for our team and how to have success and how to get on the court. I think he’s embraced just being a junkyard dog type. He had a couple big offensive rebounds for us early. He played with great energy, so I hope that continues.”
4. Bryce Thompson Starts Hot
Bryce Thompson enters his first season at Oklahoma State with unreasonably high expectations for a guy whose expectations should be high.
Being a five-star prospect from about an hour drive away, he has more pressure on him than a highly touted guy from DFW that comes into Stillwater.
He played freely Friday night, scoring 11 points on 11 shots. He wasn’t stuck in some system. He was creating his shot. He had a score-first mindset. It was the type of play that saw him leave Booker T. Washington High School with the stars and ranking he had.
Is he going to be Cade Cunningham for this team? Almost definitely not, but if he can continue to play as confidently as he did Friday, he will be a major contributor for the Pokes.
“I feel comfortable saying this because I’ve had this conversation with him and his family: he’s not Cade,” Boynton said. “So, let’s make clear of that. Like that dude (Cunningham), obviously he struggled a little bit out the gate in the NBA, but he was also guarded by Giannis (Antetokounmpo) for like 35 minutes the other night. I think I would struggle on my best day, alright? But, Bryce (Thompson) is going to be really, really good for us. I think the way we play is going to help him. I’m going to continue to instill confidence in his ability, the reason we recruited him, and I really, really enjoyed coaching that kid. Again, expectations, I can’t control that. I think people thought Cade was going to get 50 every night last year.”
5. The Cisse Shot-Blocking Factory
Moussa Cisse quietly scored 14 points in his first game as a Cowboy, but he loudly blocked five shots.
It’s not just that Cisse is tall and long, which he is, but he didn’t often get caught up on a pump fake. He has a real knack for the art of blocking shots, or at least did against a D-II team.
Another bright spot for Cisse was that he went 4-for-7 from the foul line. That’s 57% — not elite, but considering he shot 32% from the line last season, that’s some solid improvement.
“He’s gonna get fouled a lot,” Boynton said. “It’s just the nature of where he plays and how he plays and, you know, if teams start thinking he’s a 70-75 percent free-throw shooter, then maybe they’ll think twice about it.”
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