WVU basketball: Cobbins' injury leaves Oklahoma State with void to fill going forward
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The first significant injury in the Big 12 this season is quite serious and struck one of the best teams in the country.
Oklahoma State, the co-favorite in the conference's preseason men's basketball poll, lost starting center Michael Cobbins to a torn Achilles' tendon Dec. 30. The Cowboys then lost their first game without Cobbins to Kansas State on Jan. 4 and fell from No. 6 to No. 11 in this week's poll.
"We ran off (seven) straight games in the Big 12 last season and in those games he was, I thought, the MVP of the team," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said of a roster that had Marcus Smart. "He was the difference in our basketball team."
The 6-foot-8, 230-pound Cobbins averaged 6.9 points and 6.1 rebounds last season and did a bunch of things to help hold a talented team together. Though his numbers were down to start this season (4.5 points, 4.3 rebounds), the junior was again making more shots than he missed and keying the team during a 12-1 start.
Ford gave his team a simple message: Feel bad for Cobbins, but not for the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State lost its first game without Cobbins, 74-71, at Kansas State Saturday and won Wednesday night at home against Texas. The Cowboys (13-2, 1-1 Big 12) play WVU (10-5, 2-0) at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Coliseum.
"It's part of the game," Ford said. "I hate it for Michael. He's a terrific young man. He's what's right about college athletics. He'll bounce back, but I hate it for him. Any time you lose any player, it puts a little bit of a dent in your team, but it also gives other players an opportunity."
Sophomore Kamari Murphy, one of the top prep school recruits two years ago, has started the past two games in place of Cobbins and totaled six points, eight rebounds, six blocked shots and four steals. Oklahoma State can also play the 6-7 Nash down low and use 6-4 point guard Marcus Smart as a forward, which gives Ford a chance to play other guards.
Sharpshooter Phil Ford, who had six 3-pointers in a game against WVU last season, leads the Big 12 with a 48.8 percentage from deep this season. Freshman Stevie Clark was the first player in Oklahoma history to win the state high school player of the year award in back-to-back years and was a top 75 recruit.
Yet a lot of the responsibility will remain with Smart to continue to involve teammates, including ones who have been around for a while. Senior Markel Brown was sixth in the Big 12 in scoring a year ago (15.3). A second-team all-Big 12 player last season, the 6-3 Brown is two points better this season and has averaged 21.5 points and seven rebounds the past two games.
"He enjoys competition," Ford said. "He loves to compete on the biggest stage. It seems like he raises his game even more when he's challenged."
Brown is the only senior on the roster and one of five players who were a part of the team that finished 15-18 two seasons ago. The Cowboys are 37-11 since then and Brown is one of the biggest reasons why.
"He's one of the captains on the team and he's more of a quiet leader," Ford said. "Guys look up to Markel. The young guys see it, even Marcus. These guys know Markel's been through a lot at Oklahoma State. He's persevered and gotten better every single year. He's not a rah-rah guy. He's not like Marcus, who's going to lead vocally. Markel is more mature to an extent of showing them, 'This is the way things need to be done.' He's been around here and knows what to expect."
It helps Brown and the Cowboys to know just about everyone else has been through this before. Guard Brian Williams, who started 20 games and all 18 in the Big 12 in the 2011-12 season and averaged 9.6 points while playing important defense, missed the first 18 games last season with a wrist injury. His scoring was cut in half in 14 games last season. He's healthy and starting again this season and averages 8.7 points and 4.1 rebounds with 20 steals and 10 blocked shots. Ford said he's the team's best defender.
"Marcus is a great defender off the ball making steals, but as far as going and stopping somebody, don't let him catch it and don't let him score, he's who you look at and say, 'OK, let's do it,'" Ford said. "We didn't have that guy last year. He makes it difficult for whoever he has on offense. Sometimes in practice, since he knows the plays, we have to say, 'OK, Brian, let him catch it so we can go over the rest.'"
Williams is capable offensively, too. He has 23 games in double figures in his career. Fifteen came as a freshman, where he had all five of the 20-point games in his career. He was in double figures just once last season with 13 points against the Mountaineers.
"We scrimmaged in the preseason, just three 10-minute quarters, and at the end they told me he had 21 points," Ford said. "I'm like, 'Did he really? Where'd that come from?' Then you start to think about it and he slashed here, got an offensive rebound there, did this, did that. He's a lot like Markel. He's got a motor and he doesn't quit. He's a talented player and a big answer to a lot of things we didn't have last year."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.