Oklahoma State braces for ‘hottest team in the country’

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan guard Derrick Walton, Jr. passes the ball during a three-man weave drill during the Michigan practice session Thursday.

Indianapolis — Oklahoma State is used to being the underdog.

Playing in the Big 12 with the likes of Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa State, it’s become a common role for the Cowboys.

But when No. 10 Oklahoma State faces No. 7 Michigan on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Cowboys are expecting more than just the Wolverines’ faithful to be cheering them on.

“They’re the hottest team in the country,” Oklahoma State senior guard Phil Forte III said. “Just going through what they went through, those circumstances, they were the talk of college basketball and rightfully so. They’re playing really well, they’re really hot and we know we have a tall task.”

Michigan’s remarkable story swept the nation last week when the team’s charter flight skidded off the runway, through a fence and into a ditch the day before the Big Ten tournament. Suffering only bumps and bruises, the Wolverines arrived in Washington less than two hours before tip-off of their first game and took off, ripping off four wins in four days to become the lowest seed (No. 8) to win the title in the tournament’s 20-year history.

Oklahoma State senior forward Leyton Hammonds shook his head when he tried to imagine what the Michigan players had to go through over those five days.

“I’m not afraid of flying, but it’s always in the back of my head. I always say a prayer before I get on a flight,” Hammonds said. “For something like that to happen, and then a team to go out and beat everybody in their conference tournament, that’s a great story. It brought a lot of buzz around their university. It’s a blessing that things like that happen and everybody ends up OK, injury-wise nobody is hurt or anything.”

Sophomore guard Jawun Evans said it was “heart-breaking” when he heard what happened and sympathized with the Wolverines had to endure.

“They came out back on fire, so I guess it was just a fan to the fire with them,” Evans said. “I think they use it as motivation. Ever since it happened, they went on fire. It’s just something that you can’t change.”

Forte said Michigan players handled the situation better than he would’ve and added it feels like Oklahoma State is going up against a team of destiny.

“To see them rally around each other was definitely impressive and I think that’s what has sparked a little run that they’ve had,” Forte said. “Coming here you’re like, ‘Great, this is America’s team right now.’

“At the end of the day, it’s basketball and when the ball goes up, they probably won’t be thinking that, we won’t be thinking that. It’s just two teams going at it and just trying to advance and play another game.”

Michigan vs. Oklahoma State: Who has the edge?

‘Part of the business’

It didn’t take long for news of Indiana coach Tom Crean’s firing to spread.

Crean was axed Thursday following a dismal 18-16 season that ended with a first-round exit in the NIT to Georgia Tech. In nine seasons with the Hoosiers, Crean had three seasons with at least 27 wins and won two Big Ten regular-season titles.

“It’s an unfortunate part of your business that so many of your friends, so many guys you coach against every day, that there’s a change in direction at the schools,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “So I don’t know a lot about it. All I know is Tom’s a heck of a coach.

“I think we all understand, given the way we are — the way we are compensated, it’s a part of the business and we better be ready to roll with it if it happens to us or to others.”

Slam dunks

When it comes to guarding Evans, Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. asked for help from a friend: Iowa State guard Monte Morris.

“I get to chat with him about point guard matchups,” Walton said. “I think (Evans) plays a lot like Chris Paul. He’s good at changing speeds.”

When asked what Morris, a former Flint Beecher standout, told him, Walton said: “I think I’m going to keep that between us two.”

Iowa State beat Oklahoma State three times during the season, twice in the regular season and in the Big 12 tournament opener.

… During the Big Ten tournament, GIFs sophomore guard Fred Wright-Jones’ bench celebrations went viral and garnered thousands of retweets on Twitter.

“At first, I really wasn't aware of the fact that it was going so viral,” Wright-Jones said. “I was just having fun on the sidelines. Then after the entire Big Ten tournament I kept seeing myself on Twitter and stuff like that and realized it was bigger than I thought it was.”

Wright-Jones suffered a left ankle injury in Wednesday’s practice and was in a walking boot Thursday. But even if he’s limited, Wright-Jones said he’ll still be able to pull off some moves.

“I'm going to have to come up with a few things in my head of what to do with one leg,” he said. “The good thing about it is we don't play until tomorrow, so I still have some time.”

…Prior to Michigan’s open practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the team held an off-site practice at Butler’s historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.