Randy Rutherford, Oklahoma State's sharpshooting guard, grew up in Broken Bow, Okla., a town so small the shopping center is a block with a 7-Eleven convenience store, a bar and a gas station.
Broken Bow, which Rutherford proudly boasts has now grown to a population of 6,000, is not known as fertile ground for developing basketball players. In fact, most residents consider roundball something to do until football season comes around.
"We don't have malls, and the best thing is that we have two pool halls," said Rutherford, whose Cowboys will play UCLA Saturday in Seattle in a Final Four semifinal game. "In the big city, you've got so many other things to keep you occupied. In the small towns, you are around your family and a lot of friends and things are simple."
The absence of Broken Bow athletes in the NBA, however, does not bother Rutherford when he talks about his game.
"I'm not intimidated at all by anybody," said Rutherford, a 6-foot-3 senior who keeps a toothpick in his mouth when he is not playing. "As long as you know how to play the game, that is what really matters, and I know how to play."
In Coach Eddie Sutton's inside-outside offense, Rutherford is Mr. Outside, 7-foot Bryant (Big Country) Reeves being Mr. Inside.
"My job on this team is to go out and shoot the ball," said Rutherford, whose 142 three-point baskets this season rank third in NCAA history and the 275 in his career constitute a Big Eight Conference record.
As an all-conference selection, Rutherford is averaging 19.7 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. And in the tournament, he has stepped his game up to prime time with 13 three-point baskets in four games. He scored 45 of the Cowboys' 62 points in a loss to Kansas to close the regular season.
"There's no question in my mind that Randy is the most underrated player in the country," said point guard Andre Owens, who has started alongside Rutherford the last two seasons. "He comes to play night in and night out and always gets it done. Once he gets his shot going, you get him the ball as much as possible. He gives a guy like me assists all day long. He should have been at least a second-team All-American."
On a senior-dominated team, Rutherford is a quiet leader.
"He's kind of like me in that he's not a real vocal type of leader," said Reeves, who comes from a town even smaller than Broken Bow--Gans, Okla., population 426.
"He just goes out and tries to get the job done. In practice, it's a different story. He's always getting on the guards, tellin' 'em what to do. Randy knows what needs to be done."
Rutherford's confident style is difficult to overlook. Just ask Massachusetts. The Minutemen watched him score 15 of his 19 points in the second half of Oklahoma State's 68-54 victory in the East Regional Sunday.
After missing his first four three-point shots and scoring only four points in the first half, Rutherford made two quick long-range jump shots, touching off a rally in the second half.
"When he came off that screen and hit nothing but net on his first shot of the second half, I knew right then that it was about to be his half and UMass didn't know what was about to hit them," Owens said. "Once he starts swishing them in like that, it just opens everything up for us. Teams just can't stop him and then slow Big Country down in the middle. In many ways, he is the player that makes us go."
UMass' Carmelo Travieso had the difficult task of guarding Rutherford and gave him a high rating.
"He's so strong that he runs around picks and does a good job pushing off," Travieso said. "If you leave him alone, he'll burn you from the outside, but he also can hurt you inside."
Rutherford likes to consider himself more than a scorer, and in making the Big Eight's all-defensive team, he shut down a long list of high-scoring guards this season.
"In our system, we like to make teams play defense for a long time and then shut them down on offense," said Rutherford, who has made as many as 11 three-point shots in a single game and has taken down as many as 15 rebounds. "I go into every game feeling that I can shut down whoever I am guarding."
Of Oklahoma State's matchup with UCLA, Rutherford says that the Cowboys will not consider themselves underdogs. "We look at UCLA like any other team that we have played this season, because with us, it never matters who we play," Rutherford said. "We'll put them on defense and make them work hard, running around picks and stuff, which keeps teams from getting any easy points. "Everyone knows about UCLA and its rich history from John Wooden to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But that was then and this is now."
Rutherford is a sociology major who wants to work with juvenile delinquents after he graduates in May, but that may have to wait.
NBA scouts have begun to notice him and some have projected him as a possible late first-round draft choice. Not bad for someone who could care less about living in a big city.
"I'm regular," Rutherford said. "I'm just a low-key person. I mean, around the guys, I talk a little trash, and joke some. But basically, I'm just regular."