MANHATTAN, Kan. — When Oklahoma State routinely absorbed conference road losses the past two seasons, it wasn't like those setbacks, disappointing as they were, stood as the difference in any push for a Big 12 championship.
Those teams struggled to win home and away.
This year, however, the No. 22-ranked Cowboys are engaging in title talk, with full understanding that a road rally is required.
“If you want to have a chance to win a Big 12 championship,” said OSU coach Travis Ford, “you've got to win a few road games. You've got to sneak a few out somewhere.”
First up: Manhattan, Kan., Saturday, against No. 25 Kansas State, in the premier matchup of the opening weekend of league play. Tip time is 12:45 p.m., with the Big 12 Network handling the telecast.
The Cowboys are 10-2, while the Wildcats are 11-2.
“It's a big challenge for the freshmen, and for this team,” said junior captain Markel Brown, “going into this Big 12 atmosphere on the road.”
Brown should know, as the closest thing the Cowboys have to a veteran. And his experiences so far haven't been pleasant, as he's been on teams that have gone a combined 1-16 in the league's enemy arenas. In Ford's four seasons, OSU is 6-27 on the road in conference, 10-31 in true road games overall.
So something must give for OSU to make a realistic run toward the top of the conference.
“We've talked a lot to our team about playing on the road,” Ford said, “and the importance of playing well on the road, the things that we think are important.”
Ford eyes the point guard spot — and Marcus Smart — as a good place to start.
“You've got to have great point guard play,” Ford said. “We haven't had that. I think we'll get that now. At least we know we'll get the effort. That always helps.”
While Smart hasn't yet made his maiden venture into foreign Big 12 territory, the freshman guard has already made a transforming mark on the program with his play and his intangibles at the point. The Cowboys are counting on those assets traveling.
“I think Marcus brings everything together,” said OSU center Philip Jurick. “When we get off track, he's a good leader, even as a freshman.”
The track to a Big 12 championship figures to demand a conference win total in the teens. At least 13 wins has been the minimum the past seven years. And most of those seasons were played with a 16-game league format, before two more conference matchups were added with the move to a full round-robin a year ago.
Doing the basic math, counting nine conference home games, there's work to be done on the road. Considering the Cowboys haven't gone unbeaten at home in the Big 12 since 2003-04, substantial work could be in order to make a run at the title.
“It's not like we're going to go out and win every one of them,” Ford said. “But we've got to find three or four.”
Winning in Manhattan won't be easy, although the Cowboys have won five of the last eight meetings in Bramlage Coliseum, an oddity among OSU's recent road record.
Ford does, however, believe that his latest team has what it takes to compete and win on the road.
“I hope so, yeah,” he said. “I think we're a better basketball team. And I think we've got better point guard play. I think it's a team, hopefully, built a little better for the road.
“But it's hard. You look at the history, other than Kansas, there are very few teams that have gone and won. It's very difficult to win on the road.”
With OSU and K-State both looking like Big 12 contenders at this stage, the game figures to loom larger for the Wildcats as the home team. Still, the Cowboys would love to make a road statement sooner, rather than later. And beating the Wildcats would accomplish that, as well as provide a significant talking point in the conversation of Big 12 contenders.
“I'm really excited to see what this team can do in the Big 12,” Brown said. “We've been picked third, I think we can win it.
“I'm really excited about this team going against heavy competition every night. No games from here on out are cupcake games. I'm really excited for this team.”