KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Travis Ford keeps turning to his mentors, Rick Pitino and other college coaches he respects and admires, seeking some sort of solace for a season spinning ever sideways.
Adversity? Ford and his Cowboys know it well.
Players lost to injury.
Unhappy players lost to defection.
One key player in legal limbo and lost to a redshirt.
A faction of the fan base lost either to sore feelings over the end of the Sutton era or the mounting losses that have Oklahoma State on the brink of the program's first losing record since Leonard Hamilton's second season 24 years ago.
“I have never been through anything like this at all,” Ford said as his team prepares to play even further shorthanded in the Big 12 Tournament — beginning Wednesday night at 8:30 against Texas Tech — with the loss of Philip Jurick now putting the number of one-time starters lost to injury at three.
“I've talked to a lot of my friends in the business and they say, ‘Travis, you've been a head coach for 15 years and if this is the first time you're dealing with it, you're doing pretty good.'”
Sure doesn't feel very good, not in the throes of this disaster, which has the Cowboys at 14-17 and reduced to six full-time scholarship players. And not for a coach who seemed to have righted what was a scuffling program with back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths.
Then OSU slipped to the NIT a year ago. And this season doesn't figure to feature a postseason of any sort.
“We've had our ups and downs,” said senior and favorite Cowboy Keiton Page, now facing the elimination round of his career. “We've definitely faced adversity, as much adversity as we've faced since I've been here.”
So, how did the Cowboys get here?
Let us count the ways.
Last year, chemistry issues — and the lack of a go-to player — contributed to a failed rebuild following the loss of standouts James Anderson and Obi Muonelo. OSU also played the final month without Darrell Williams, who still faces legal charges in a sexual assault case, although amid optimism that he'll be able to return next season. Even then, the Cowboys finished 20-14 and won a game in the NIT.
This season's struggle is much more complicated.
OSU's active roster is a shell of what would have been projected in October. Williams, a much-needed big man, remains sidelined waiting for the courts to settle his case. Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell quit on the Cowboys. And Jéan-Paul Olukemi, Le'Bryan Nash and Jurick are missing with injuries.
That's six players who have been starters at one time or another.
“It's been crazy for us this year,” Page said.
Beyond the riddled roster, OSU took on a rugged nonconference challenge contributing to a strength of schedule that ranks No. 2 nationally. And the lack of a true point guard continues to limit the offense, a problem since Byron Eaton's eligibility expired three years ago.
“I think this is one of those years a coach has every 10 to 20 seasons,” said former coach and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. “It's one of those years where everything goes wrong and the No. 1 job description of the coach is crisis management coordinator.
“That's how you're measured. A coach is measured not just by wins and losses, but how they handle adversity. And the Cowboys have certainly had three seasons worth of adversity this year.”
How does Fraschilla measure Ford's work?
“I've been impressed, I really have,” he said. “When you think of who they thought they would have at the start of the year, and for a variety of reasons who they ended up putting on the court, I think Travis did his best coaching job since he's been at Oklahoma State.
“They were competitive. They played hard. They were certainly shorthanded. But I think what has come out of this season so far has been the emergence of Markel Brown, Brian Williams, Michael Cobbins, Le'Bryan Nash. I think what they did was develop a core nucleus for the future.
“Now, they did it the hard way. And they had to suffer in terms of the won-loss record, but I thought they could have easily folded the tent halfway through the Big 12.”
The Cowboys wobbled at times, absorbing beatings by Baylor and Kansas and Missouri, but they showed resiliency, too, typically playing hard and even posting some big wins over Mizzou, Texas and Iowa State.
“There's times when I thought, ‘Oh boy, the Cowboys are in trouble,'” Fraschilla said. “And they turned around and beat a Missouri or a Texas and they come back in the second half against Kansas.
“I watched Texas A&M this year, with far more talent, go through similar adversity and they didn't react nearly as well as Oklahoma State did.”
Some of OSU's adversity seems self-inflicted.
It's Ford's job to develop a point guard. And his first recruiting class, a six-man group made up mostly of point guard prospects and post projects, completely washed out with Gulley and Dowell the last to leave.
“I have had teams where nobody has left for three or four years and I have had teams where you lose two or three a year because they don't like their role or maybe they aren't playing or maybe you are too hard on them at times,” Ford said. “It's part of the game.”
In a twist, OSU's defections and injuries may have revealed Ford's hope for the future, with Brown, Williams and Cobbins benefiting from the available minutes and elevating their status.
“I like their talent a lot,” said Kansas coach Bill Self. “I think Page is still the key to their team. But I think Brown has the chance to be a really, really, really good player and Le'Bryan has the chance to be one of the best players in the league, without question.
“(Brian) Williams is a good player. You get Marcus Smart in there, and that is a pretty nice young group of guys.”
Smart is part of OSU's next wave, a McDonald's All-American and top-15 national recruit out of Texas.
Since that failed first group, Ford's classes are starting to produce.
Now, will it be enough to get the Cowboys back in the hunt in the Big 12?
Oklahoma State vs. Texas Tech
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
TV: KOCB-34 (Cox 11)
Radio: KXXY 96.1 FM
Three things to know:
The Cowboys will be without starters Le'Bryan Nash (hand) and Philip Jurick (Achilles), playing with just six full-time scholarship players.
OSU has never lost a first-round game at the Big 12 Tournament, going 8-0 on the opening day. The Cowboys swept Tech during the regular season.
The winner advances to play Missouri Thursday at 6 p.m. in the quarterfinals.
Oklahoma State (14-17, 7-11);;;;;
Texas Tech (8-22, 1-17);;;;;