DAYTON, Ohio (AP)—Rock bottom arrived with an embarrassing 24-point loss at Texas on Feb. 10, a blowout that forced Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford to blow up.
So when the Cowboys arrived for practice at Gallagher-Iba Arena the next day, there were drastic changes.
Ford locked the gym doors, instructed his managers to hide the basketballs and proceeded to subject his players to an exhausting, four-hour practice focusing on defensive drills and rebounding. Make a mistake, run the steps. Next day, same thing. And the day after that. And another. And another. For one week.
Cowboy boot camp.
“Torture,” Oklahoma State guard Byron Eaton said.
“Hell,” said forward Marshall Moses.
Hard as it was, Ford’s tough-love approach saved OSU’s season. The Cowboys (23-11) reeled off six straight wins and won eight of their final 10 to earn the school’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2005. Oklahoma State, relying on its back-to-basics training, beat Tennessee in the first round and will face top-seeded Pittsburgh (29-4) in the East Regional on Sunday.
“That was definitely the turning point in the season,” Eaton said.
The Panthers and Cowboys are no strangers. This will be their third meeting in three seasons with Pitt winning the most recent matchup at home, 85-68.
“They gave us a pretty good whooping last year at their place,” Eaton said. “We’re 1-1 against them, so a a tiebreaker is always good.”
Ford didn’t accept the job at tradition-rich Oklahoma State last spring to have a middle-of-the-pack program. He’s been a winner his entire life, so when his team dropped to 3-6 in the Big 12 following the diheartening loss to Texas, the former star point guard at Kentucky whose blood runs bluegrass blue, decided enough was enough.
“I was not going to accept where we were headed at that point,” he said following practice Saturday. “It was just not something I deal well with.”
It’s obvious Oklahoma State’s players follow their coach’s lead. After Ford was assessed a technical foul—he intentionally got one to fire up his team— the Cowboys responded and squeaked out a 77-75 opening-round win when Eaton, their stocky point guard, dropped a layup with 7.2 seconds to play.
The evolution of Ford’s relationship with Eaton is at the heart of Oklahoma State’s resurgence. Like his senior floor leader, Ford often found himself in coach Rick Pitino’s office being lectured on how to make better decisions on the floor and off. Ford knew he had to be patient with Eaton, who was recruited and played one season for Eddie Sutton and then two for Sean Sutton before his third coach in four years arrived.
Ford was sensitive to Eaton’s feelings. However, he wasn’t so sympathetic about something else: the 22-year-old’s waistline.
Listed at 210 pounds, Eaton was one cheeseburger shy of 250 when he reported to Ford on June 1. During their first meeting, Ford laid down the law.
“I told him, ‘I look forward to coaching you, I think you fit our style of play’,” Ford said. “But I said, ‘I’m having the same conversation with you as my college coach had with me. You’re either going to lose the weight or you’re not going to play. Plain and simple. I don’t have to play you. I have a seven-year contract and the first couple of years I’m going to be rebuilding anyway. It’s up to you if you’re going to play.’
“I was serious about it.”
Eaton bought in, slimmed down and this season became the first player in conference history to record 1,250 points, 500 assists and 250 career steals.
It was tough early on for Eaton and his teammates, who were determined to get Oklahoma State back into the NCAA field after three seasons in the NIT. They had to learn Ford’s up-tempo system, which puts a premium on offensive ball movement, defensive pressure and everybody-crash-the-boards rebounding.
There were times when Eaton questioned Ford’s methods. Not anymore.
“Coach Ford and I have definitely bumped heads a few times,” he said. “But I had to understand that he has played in the Final Four. He coached in the Final Four. It was hard to bite my tongue a lot of times, but I just have to realize that he’s telling me something that’s going to better myself. I’m glad he did some of the things he did to me.”
Pitt’s defense was equally hard on Eaton the last time the schools met. He shot 3-of-14 from the floor in last season’s loss, when the Panthers built an 18-point halftime lead and coasted.
That was then, and Pitt’s players know the current Cowboys are playing a different style of ball. Still, stopping Eaton will be a point of emphasis.
“He’s the rock of that team,” Pitt forward Sam Young said. “When he’s playing his best, the team follows his lead. And right now he’s playing great.”
Greatness may not be required for the Cowboys to upend the Panthers, who played poorly in Friday’s win over No. 16 seed East Tennessee State.
Pitt point guard Levance Fields, who has been struggling with a groin injury the past few weeks, continues to insist he’s healthy but didn’t look it during much of his 36 minutes on the floor. Fields rarely brought the ball up against ETSU’s press, missed all five 3-point tries and had as many field goals (3) as turnovers.
“I told you yesterday I’m 100 percent,” he said. “So I’m 100 percent today.”