STILLWATER — Oklahoma State forward Matt Pilgrim pondered his team's readiness for Big 12 Conference play and revealed sort of a mischievous grin.
“Yeah, that's the fun part,” Pilgrim said.
And the tough part.
And the defining point in gauging a team's NCAA Tournament legitimacy.
The preliminaries are over, save for a few stray nonconference clashes, with Big 12 openers involving 10 of the league's teams Saturday. While a championship is the optimal aim for every team, the No. 9 carries most significance – as a clear dividing line on earning an NCAA bid.
Nine conference wins, minimum.
So the Cowboys have their target.
Now, can they get there?
We could get an inkling soon enough, with a rugged opening stretch bringing Kansas State to Gallagher-Iba Arena Saturday, before back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Colorado next week.
Over the history of the Big 12 Conference, 16 of the 19 teams finishing 9-7 found themselves gaining entry into March Madness.
Otherwise, among 8-8 squads, only Texas A&M in 2008 made the tournament. And no team finishing 7-9 or worse has been included.
OSU just wrapped up a 12-2 nonconference stretch of the schedule, more than solid for a rebuilding team, yet remains a major question mark. The Cowboys lost their two toughest games (Virginia Tech and Gonzaga) and found little revealing in any of the other 12.
“We're happy that we're 12-2, but out of our 14 games, we've got to play better than any game we've played in any of those games in order to compete in the league.
“I can't look back and say out of those 14 games, ‘That game we played right there, if we play like that…' None of them.
“We're going to have to play better than any game we've played. We have not put 40 minutes together yet.”
Good news for OSU: mediocrity seems to be the theme across the country.
As Sporting News analyst Mike DeCourcy writes: “…the SEC West is a disaster, the Pac-10 is in the second year of a reconstruction that might run as long as the presidential campaign cycle and the ACC – America's proudest college basketball conference – has been conquered by Kennesaw State, Yale and Seattle.
“Good gracious – who's any good?”
The Big 12 does command respect, with five teams ranked in the Top 25 and a No. 3 conference RPI that's due to rise. The league has produced at least six NCAA Tournament teams each of the past three seasons, with seven a year ago representing a conference record. This year should bring another bevy of Big 12 bids... for the teams good enough to win nine or more within the conference.
OSU finished tied for sixth in the conference standings a year ago, yet helped to pad the league's list of 9-7 NCAA Tournament teams.
This isn't the same squad – far from it – minus Big 12 Player of the Year James Anderson and Obi Muonelo. Nor is it a finished product. Still, it's a team that should fit somewhere around the middle of the pack in the conference, as long as the development of newcomers like Jéan-Paul Olukemi and Markel Brown continues.
Preferably, for the Cowboys, the upper middle.
The schedule presents an immediate challenge in Kansas State, even if the Wildcats arrive short-handed due to the suspension of forward Curtis Kelly.
A must-win? Not this early, although winning home games is vital in almost any math that adds up to nine wins.
“And it just doesn't get any easier,” Ford said.
That's the fun part, as Pilgrim said.
And the tough part.
And the defining point.
It's early, way early, but already the bracketologists are busy projecting the field of 68 â€“ that's right, remember the field has been expanded.
When it comes to OSU and its unrevealing nonconference schedule, initial thoughts are to be expected: cloudy.
At ESPN.com, Joe Lunardi has the Cowboys among his â€œFirst Four Outâ€ and places the odds of making the field at 40 percent.
At SI.com, Seth Davis is â€œsellingâ€ the Cowboys, writing â€œThis one's an easy call. The Cowboys have never been ranked this season and they've generated very little buzz, but they're clearly not as good as their record.â€
At CBSSports.com, Jerry Palm is counting the Cowboys in, as a No. 10 seed, and is on record as wondering who at all is any good? â€œIt almost seems to be getting worse every year,â€ Palm said of the watered down world of college hoops.
COUNTING TO NINE
Reasons To Believe
* Room to grow: These Cowboys aren't yet who their coaches believe they can be, with a transition of roles still taking place. In Markel Brown and JÃ©an-Paul Olukemi, they have emerging talents with upside who could impact OSU's place in the conference. And Matt Pilgrim is just now rounding into his strong late-season form of a year ago.
* Dee-Fense!: The Cowboys have stressed and thrived on defense, holding opponents to 39.6 percent field goal shooting.
* Northern Exposure: The crossover schedule sets up right, with winnable games at Colorado and Nebraska, as well as all three at home: Kansas State, Iowa State and Missouri.
* Travis Ford: In each of his first two years, the Cowboys coach has urged improvement from his teams down the stretch. Figure him to find a way to lead OSU to a third straight NCAA Tournament.
Reasons To Doubt
* Go-To Who? The Cowboys lack an obvious clutch scorer. Forward Marshall Moses is the closest thing, but he relies on the offense to roll to him inside, rather than creating on his own. On those nights when the offense is scuffling, it's nice to have a star to turn to.
* Scoring struggles: Lacking a stud scorer, this team really has to work on offense, using picks and screens and heavy ball movement. It's rarely pretty and never easy.
* Looming distraction: The possibility of potential sexual assault charges continues to linger as the DA's office sorts through the investigation.