STILLWATER — Coach Travis Ford wants Oklahoma State's foreign tour to Spain to be a bonding opportunity for his family — his basketball family that is.
The team departed Wednesday morning and will play four games, two in Barcelona and two in the Canary Islands. The coaches left their wives and children behind so their entire focus would be on the players.
“I want to spend quality and quantity time with my basketball team myself, and we're all going to do that and get to know each other, bond, spend 10 great days together,” Ford said.
The trip could be exactly what the Cowboys need after a rocky patch that has seen defections from the program, a series of injuries and unwanted, off-the-court issues.
Most recently, center Phillip Jurick was suspended indefinitely after being charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Jurick, who started 16 games last season before being one of the players lost to injury, pleaded not guilty to the charges but will not make the trip.
Jurick's arrest came less than two weeks after suspended power forward Darrell Williams was convicted of two felony counts of rape by instrumentation and one count of sexual battery. Williams was also acquitted on two other counts of rape by instrumentation.
Those issues came after a season when two point guards with starting experience left the program and injuries to Jurick, Jean-Paul Olukemi and star freshman Le'Bryan Nash further depleted the roster. At times, Ford had to go with four freshmen on the floor for extended stretches late last season.
So, the Spain trip offers a chance to regroup and try to create some positive momentum heading into the upcoming season.
“It comes at a good time for our basketball team,” Ford said. “We've got some returning players that are still young, but they're returners. They look like they've matured. By working with them, they all look bigger, stronger and just playing more physical. And then the freshmen are one of the most mature freshmen (classes) I've ever had, some of the most ready-to-play freshmen I've had.”
During the trip, he has some team-building exercises and sightseeing outings planned to try and foster a better sense of unity.
“We're using it to accomplish, hopefully, a lot of different things, first and foremost just a great opportunity to spend 10 days together as a basketball family,” Ford said.
NCAA rules allowed Oklahoma State 10 days of practice leading up to the foreign tour, and Ford tried to cram in as much as he could.
“We wanted to introduce everything,” Ford said. “We haven't detailed it, but we've put in several plays of defenses, underneath out of bounds plays. We are to the point now where I would be probably two to three weeks into October.
“We are very sloppy with it right now because we're not detailed.”
Olukemi will be able to go on the trip with Oklahoma State, as the team waits to find out whether he can regain a semester of eligibility he lost because he took classes at a junior college during his final semester of high school that count against his eligibility.
Freshmen Marcus Smart, Phil Forte and Kamari Murphy also will get their first taste of Cowboys basketball in games against Saint Nicholas on Friday, Barcelona Select on Sunday, Gran Canaria under-20 on Tuesday and Gran Canaria Select on Aug. 16.
“I wanted to try to find the toughest competition,” Ford said. “The reason we went to Spain was we heard that was very good competition, to the point where I'm not too concerned about winning and losing because we could definitely lose some games with the competition that we're playing but more just get a feel for the roles of the players and kind of Xs and Os, what's working and not working.”
Ford said he hopes that when he gets back, he'll have a better understanding of who'll be in his starting lineup and where everyone else fits in. Many of the players ended up logging minutes out of position, or at multiple positions, during last season's unpredictability.
“They got thrown into the fire last season. It was a difficult situation, some young kids in some high-stage games,” Ford said.
“We were thinking, `Man, we may be taking our lumps now, but this is going to pay off for us later.' And what we were hoping for, we've seen a little bit.”
Ford said he could go with a lineup with all five players 6-foot-4 or taller and he's interested to see how the Cowboys' size, quickness and athleticism will translate on defense against the Spanish teams. He's going to test out some new pressure defenses and half-court looks during the trip. “I see a lot of possibilities, I see a lot of positive things happening,” Ford said. “I'm not screaming from the top of the building yet and all that, but there's a lot of very positive things happening.”