Big 12 upstart: It's time to take Oklahoma State seriously

Natasha Mack records second triple-double in program history, other program musings

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At the start of the 2020-21 season, everyone knew there would be more than a sprinkle of unpredictability to the new year. But neither the preseason coaches poll, nor The Next’s preseason power rankings, predicted that Oklahoma State would compete for a tournament bid. After all, this was a squad that was losing Vivian Gray, a unanimous All-Big 12 First Team selection.

The Cowgirls are 8-2 to begin the season, and they’re off to a 4-0 start in conference play for the first time since 2008. That’s all thanks to the commanding two-way presence of Natasha Mack and the emergence of several key rotation pieces.

Just this past week, Mack registered the second triple-double in program history against TCU with 28 points, 17 rebounds, and 10 blocks — the first player in the country to notch at least 10 blocks in a game this year, per Her Hoop Stats, and the most by a Big 12 player since Texas Tech’s Brittany Brewer had 16 back in 2019. The short-handed Cowgirls were without two starting guards against TCU due to COVID-19 protocols — freshman Lexy Keys and sophomore Lauren Fields, who combine to average 17.2 points. They still won by 25 points.

Mack has evolved as an offensive weapon in 2020-21. The senior is becoming more comfortable shooting from the midrange, not only launching more attempts than last year but knocking them down at a significantly higher clip. Head coach Jim Littell has given her the green light — many of these midrange shots have come early in the shot clock, including in the outburst against TCU, and she’s opening up the offense as a result.

Oklahoma State loves to put her in the pick-and-roll with junior guard Ja’Mee Asberry, and Mack’s ability to stretch the defense ever-so-slightly makes the two-woman game even more unpredictable. Much of the growth and program’s success can be attributed to Mack’s harmonious humble attitude and work ethic.

“She’s very humble, she defers all the attention away from herself, she’s a player that in the locker room that will speak up and congratulate Ja’Mee Asberry on the way she played,” Littell said. “She’s just one that her teammates love her, they love being around her on a daily basis. Sometimes you have situations where stars are resented by other players. That’s not the case with Natasha Mack.”

The Cowgirls’ ascent wouldn’t be possible, however, without the concurrent rise of Asberry. She’s taken her game to the next level this season, improving her scoring average from 6.8 points per game to 16.4, the third-biggest jump in the Big 12.

The bulk of Aberry’s scoring comes from midrange and 3-point shots, and she shoots efficiently from nearly everywhere on the court. Just last week, she hit all six of her 3-point attempts in a game against Texas Tech and followed it up with a 4-of-7 outside shooting performance Wednesday against TCU.

She’s more than a one-way threat, though. Even at her 5’5 frame, Asberry is a net positive on defense because she generates steals and plays in a zone that compliments her ability as a ballhawk.

“When you’ve got guards playing hard on the perimeter and pressuring the ball and people being where they should be,” Litell said. “When you’ve got someone at the rim to be a rim-protector it helps a lot as well. With [Natasha], it’s not only the shots she blocks but the shots she alters as well. She can clean up a lot of mistakes.”

That Oklahoma State zone has done wonders for the Cowgirls this season, and Mack is at the center of it all. If Mack grades out as a 5-star athlete, her intelligence on the defensive end might earn her a sixth star. The Cowgirls play an aggressive defense that is ever-collapsing on the ball-handler, and have six players averaging at least 0.8 steals per game. Taylen Collins, a freshman forward, has swiped at least two steals in nine of the Cowgirls’ first 10 games.

The pressure doesn’t stop on the perimeter, though — the Cowgirls’ paint defense is a marvel in and of itself. Oklahoma State opponents are shooting 43.8% at the rim, which makes the Cowgirls better than 98% of teams in the nation. Those swats that Littell was talking about? Those play a big role.

Blocks are always impressive, but less so when they’re accompanied by fouls — which is part of what makes the Cowgirls defense so impressive. Oklahoma State is averaging 0.53 blocks per foul, by far the best rate in the country. See that little orange sliver on the graph below? That’s where Oklahoma State lies.

Oklahoma State doesn’t have any fatal weaknesses at this point in the season. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. Looking ahead, the Cowgirls will need to evaluate their shot selection as they eye a potential tournament run.

The Cowgirls don’t get to the line very often, nor do they shoot many 3-pointers. That isn’t what the team’s skillset caters to, so the team’s throwback offense makes sense. But it’s something opponents may attack come March. Each of the conference’s top three teams — Baylor, Texas, and Iowa State — succeed in at least one of those areas, and that’s the shift modern basketball has taken.

But for now, Oklahoma State seems to have hit its stride, and switching up its formula could do more harm than good. We’ll learn more on Saturday at 2 p.m., as the Cowgirls have their rematch against TCU at home.

More Notes Around the Big 12

  • The Big 12 now has the two highest-scoring performances in a game this season, with Oklahoma’s Madi Williams’ 45-point game on Wednesday against West Virginia. Texas center Charli Collier scored 44 points in a game against North Texas back in November.

  • Collier, Iowa State guard Ashley Joens, and Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith were all named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list. This is the first midseason selection for all three players, who were also named to the preseason top 30 list.

  • Kansas State center Ayoka Lee and Texas Tech guard Vivian Gray, who were both named to the preseason list, did not crack the midseason top 25.

  • Oklahoma’s games against TCU on Jan. 9 and Texas on Jan. 12 have been postponed due to the Sooners not meeting the conference’s roster thresholds.

  • The TCU-Oklahoma State contest that was originally scheduled for Feb. 3 will now be played on Saturday, Jan. 9. TCU and Texas’ Jan. 20 matchup has also been moved up to Jan. 14.