Oklahoma State guard Obi Muonelo had fallen into a funk as the regular season drew to a close.
Moved to the bench, Muonelo was far from an early-season form that allowed him to average nearly a double-double. As the Big 12 Tournament approached, sophomore postman Marshall Moses — knowing how important Muonelo is to the Cowboys — gave Muonelo a simple request.
“Quit being a baby,” Moses said. “Come out with that aggression. … Show everybody what you can do.”
Muonelo looked at Moses and with a smile on his face told the sophomore, “I’ll be ready to play at the Big 12 Tournament.”
Moses wasn’t sure whether it was all talk or if the old Muonelo would come back, but after three games at the Big 12 Tournament, it was obvious that Muonelo’s words were a little more than just empty promises.
In three games, Muonelo scored 43 points and pulled down 23 rebounds as OSU made it all the way to the Big 12 semifinals.
“The success we had, we couldn’t have done without Obi,” Moses said. “I think he’s back. … He just kind of got in that slump and forgot how tough he was.”
Mounelo averaged more than 30 minutes per game until midway through the Big 12 schedule. After back-to-back losses on the road at Kansas and Texas, Muonelo’s minutes dipped.
During the next seven games, Muonelo checked in for fewer than 20 minutes per contest and began to see more of the bench at the start of games — freshman Keiton Page became the Cowboys’ fifth starter.
“When you become a coach, you start to realize how insignificant starting really is,” said OSU coach Travis Ford said. “But we do understand how important it is to these players and what they think about it.
“When he came out of the starting lineup, I think he took it a little difficult. We knew, and we talked about it every day, how important he was to our team and how much we had to let him realize how significant he really is to this team.”
Along with being pulled from the starting lineup, Muonelo was also suffering from fatigue. For most of his basketball career, Muonelo was a shooting guard.
This season, Ford asked the 6-foot-5 Edmond Santa Fe product to play what is more commonly known as the power forward, a physically-demanding task for a player more accustomed to shoot long-range jump shots.
“I hadn’t played in the post before and my body felt worn down,” Muonelo said. “The games where I didn’t rebound early in the game or wasn’t playing defense, my body felt worn down.
“I was just a little weak those game. I wasn’t jumping as high for rebounds, I wasn’t boxing out at hard, I couldn’t keep my base the way I used to. When that slump occurred I just felt like my body was really weak.”
Muonelo hadn’t attempted more than nine shots in any of the final seven regular season games, but in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, Muonelo threw up 10 shots against Iowa State and scored 18 points.
Twelve points against Oklahoma and another OSU victory came about. Even in the Cowboys’ loss to Missouri, Muonelo recorded his first double-double in nearly two months.
“Obi’s one of those guys that can be an X-factor for a team,” Page said. “He can be a big-time difference maker.”
Against Tennessee, the Cowboys will once again count on Muonelo to be that difference-making spark off the bench, that rebounding guard — that X-factor.