How Brad Underwood, a sleepless night and a defensive tweak engineered Oklahoma State's turnaround

Brad Underwood and Oklahoma State won their fifth straight game Saturday at West Virginia. They host Baylor Wednesday night. (Getty)
Brad Underwood and Oklahoma State won their fifth straight game Saturday at West Virginia. They host Baylor Wednesday night. (Getty)

On a Wednesday night in mid-January, inside the spacious locker room at Gallagher-Iba Arena, Brad Underwood came to his first major realization as Oklahoma State head coach. He came to it after what might have been the Cowboys’ best offensive half of the season, a 54-point eruption against Kansas State. But it was a realization that, a little more than two months into his first season in charge in Stillwater, Underwood and his team had to change.

It’s probably not the moment most would pinpoint as the inflection point of Oklahoma State’s season. The Cowboys had shot 9-of-14 from 3 and 13-for-13 from the free-throw line en route to a halftime lead. But that lead was only three. Underwood knew it should have been double-digits.

And while he didn’t know what was to come in the second half, he probably could have guessed. His team had played five previous conference games. They’d held second-half leads in four. They’d scored at least 75 points in four. They’d won zero.

Sure enough, Underwood’s search for a first Big 12 win wouldn’t end that evening. Oklahoma State gave up a crippling 96 points and slumped to its sixth straight loss. Underwood’s search for sleep that night proved similarly fruitless.

But three weeks later, the search for the hottest team in college basketball’s toughest conference doesn’t end on the prairies of Kansas, nor in the heart of Texas, nor in the mountains of West Virginia. It ends right there in northern Oklahoma, just east of I-35 between Oklahoma City and Kansas. It ends in Stillwater, and at Gallagher-Iba, where No. 6 Baylor will take the court Wednesday night as an underdog against the surging Oklahoma State Cowboys.

It ends here, in the city through which Underwood cruised on that night three weeks ago, because as he swept through the darkness, and after he arrived back at his home, he was deep in thought. He hadn’t won a game since Christmas, so he had no other choice.

“You sit there,” he recalled Monday in a phone interview, “and you soul-search a bit.”

Sitting there, Underwood considered his dilemma. He had talent. That talent had meshed into one of the nation’s best offensive units. But it hadn’t yet coalesced on the defensive end. The Pokes sat at the bottom of the conference in defensive efficiency, and thus at the bottom of the standings at 0-6.

So Underwood considered change. He phoned his assistants to discuss. What was necessary? What was plausible? What was implementable?

Underwood was wary of the perils of a mid-season overhaul. Drastic revisions of scheme and philosophy could exacerbate problems. Plus, he points out, “You’re trying to manage your first year and give your players the confidence that they need in you.”

But Underwood was also aware of the positive season-altering effects such revisions can have. That’s because he had seen them with his own two eyes.

He first saw them 10 years ago at Kansas State as an assistant under Bob Huggins. Midway through Huggins’ lone season in Manhattan, the head coach scrapped the Wildcats’ offense in favor of a small-ball look that led Kansas State on a seven-game winning streak, and to a 10-6 Big 12 record.

Four years later, with Frank Martin now at the helm, Underwood, still an assistant in Manhattan, sat down with Martin after a 1-4 start to Big 12 play. Martin’s offense wasn’t working. He recalled Huggins’ offensive renovation in 2007, and the two decided to install a spread attack in place of their post-oriented offense. Their Wildcats subsequently rattled off eight wins in nine games in February and March.

Underwood is best known for his three seasons and two NCAA tournament upsets as the head man at Stephen F. Austin, but he brought decades of experience with him to Stillwater. He led two community college programs, spent 11 years as an assistant at Western Illinois, and learned under Huggins and Martin at Kansas State and South Carolina. He drew on that experience, and especially the two major Kansas State adjustments, in the wee hours of the morning after a sixth consecutive defeat three weeks ago.

“I learned a lot from that,” Underwood says. “So I had some confidence it could be done.”

The big difference this time around was that the antidote for Oklahoma State’s ailments wasn’t a spread offense or a lineup rearrangement. It was, however, a deviation from what Underwood had had success with in the past.

“You kind of have to get out of your own way,” he says. “It was about helping this team become the best it can be. And that’s my obligation.”

Over the last three seasons at Stephen F. Austin, his pressure defenses had forced turnovers at a higher rate than any other program in Division I. He brought a similar style with him to his first power conference head-coaching gig, and implemented it from the jump. Initially, it had worked; the Cowboys were speeding opponents up. They pestered UConn into 18 turnovers and Georgetown into a whopping 28 in fast-paced victories.

But once conference foes started coming to town, the success ebbed. Oklahoma State averaged just 11.3 takeaways through its first six conference games. “We weren’t turning people over like we did in the non-league,” Underwood says. “You eliminate that, and you’ve got some issues.”

Those numbers, along with others, kept Underwood up at night. “I don’t get consumed with analytics,” he says. “I like knowing the numbers though… And the numbers don’t lie.” He looked at defensive rebounding percentage and opponent free throw rate as areas of concern. He also saw that despite the lack of forced turnovers, OSU’s average defensive possession length was still short, and opponents were still getting a large share of their shots in the paint.

So he made changes. He “put pencil onto paper.” He committed.

Underwood and his staff decided that the answer was to dial back the pressure, pull back the point of confrontation to just above the 3-point arc, and reign in the ball-denial aggressiveness. They’d also continue to mix in some zone. This wasn’t an overhaul; it was a slight tweak, and one to which the players bought in when it was presented to them the following day.

The next two days of practice didn’t involve much prep for Texas Tech, their next opponent. “It was more about us,” Underwood says. “And we were kind of off and running with that concept.”

The Cowboys stomped Tech on the road, then came back home to beat TCU and Arkansas by double-digits. They stunned Oklahoma with a steal and a Phil Forte 3-pointer in the final minute in Norman to get a fourth straight win, then knocked off No. 7 West Virginia in Morgantown.

The streak has featured five of the team’s six slowest games of the year, and after allowing 1.19 points per possession in its first six Big 12 contests, OSU has held opponents to just 1.06 during the winning run. Star point guard Jawun Evans says that the new principles have aided the team’s help-side defense

The offense, meanwhile, has climbed to No. 2 in adjusted efficiency. Evans, a sophomore, has cemented himself as one of the top dual-threat point guards in the nation. Finally, the points are translating to wins, and the Cowboys are in position to become the first team since 1985 to begin conference play 0-6 and receive an at large bid to the NCAA tournament.

“We were doing things by the numbers, from an analytical standpoint, very well,” Underwood says of the six-game losing run. “We just weren’t winning. The players knew we were close. They knew we walked into Allen Fieldhouse and had a great chance to win. It’s just about giving them that little shot of confidence, and that change did that.”