STILLWATER — Brad Underwood already has led two turnarounds at Oklahoma State.
First, the new coach took a team that struggled last season and started 10-2 this season. Then, when things fell apart and the Cowboys lost six straight games, his squad rallied to win 10 of 11. Now, Oklahoma State is back in the NCAA Tournament and will play Michigan on Friday in Indianapolis.
Underwood said things bottomed out during a home loss to Kansas State in January . He said the players, led by seniors Phil Forte and Leyton Hammonds, took charge and helped the team develop a new attitude.
“For the most part, we started doing a lot of the little things that really matter in winning games,” Underwood said. “Taking charges, diving on the floor for loose balls, becoming more detailed into our scouting report — everybody’s bought in. We’ve been really good since that K-State game here that we weren’t very good in.”
The 23-year-old Forte had nothing left to lose. The 5-foot-11 guard missed most of last season with an elbow injury and came back for a fifth year. He is thankful for the chance to extend his career.
“All the summer, all the conditioning and everything, all the two-a-days — this is what you work for,” he said. “It’s rewarding to see all that pay off.”
Forte has played in three NCAA Tournaments, but has yet to win a game.
“It’s something I haven’t accomplished, and it’s something I want to do before I leave here,” he said.
Oklahoma State has been one of the nation’s most productive teams, averaging 85.5 points per game. Point guard Jawun Evans averages 19 points and 6.2 assists per game and forward Jeffrey Carroll averages 17.4 points per contest.
Michigan’s offense, led by point guard Derrick Walton, Jr., is effective. But the Wolverines are among the nation’s slowest-paced teams, something that has Underwood’s attention.
“I don’t think we’re going to get fooled by the fact that their pace of play, as the numbers show, is pretty slow,” he said. “They are very opportunistic. A lot of it has to do with the opponents they play. Their tempo is pretty good.”
Underwood will need to help the team bounce back one more time — the Cowboys have lost their past three games. He isn’t worried because his team played well against tough competition. The Cowboys lost 86-83 at Iowa State, gave Kansas all it wanted in a 90-85 loss and lost to Iowa State 92-83 in the Big 12 Tournament.
“We’ve lost three in a row, but we’re playing great,” he said. “We just happened to do it against two teams — one is probably the hottest team in the country in Iowa State, and the other is the No. 1 team in the country in Kansas.”
Underwood said he feels the same sense of accomplishment in reaching the NCAA Tournament he did when he led Stephen F. Austin there the previous three years.
“It’s the same feeling,” he said. “I’m excited. There’s nothing better than Selection Sunday, and you hope your players are excited. We talk about enjoying the moment and staying loose. That’s what we have to do.”