MANHATTAN, Kan. — South Carolina coach Frank Martin stomped back into Gallagher-Iba Arena in December, recognizing several familiar Cowboys.
Yet beyond the faces, the Oklahoma State players were soon unrecognizable.
Their bodies, their mentalities — their games — had all changed since Martin last faced Markel Brown, Brian Williams, Le'Bryan Nash and Michael Cobbins while at Kansas State.
“As a coach, the thing that you enjoy the most and the beauty of college basketball is when you see kids that come in as freshman — like Markel Brown — and now he's a senior, he's not just a freshman athlete anymore,” Martin said. “He's a real good basketball player.
“That means that they've gone through it. They've grown up. They've gotten better. They've continued to move better. Brian Williams. Cobbins. All those guys.”
Not that long ago, Travis Ford's teams regularly lacked development, with rampant roster turnover robbing the Cowboys of a key ingredient. But Ford's housecleaning and improved recruiting and retention now reveal veteran presence as a major strength.
And that's a bankable asset, especially on the road, where the Cowboys open Big 12 play Saturday at Kansas State. Tip time is 3 p.m.
“Those kids now are good,” Martin said after OSU dismantled his Gamecocks 79-52. “Those kids are battle-tested and they're ready to go win in any building at any time against anybody.”
The No. 6-ranked Cowboys recently lost Cobbins to season-ending Achilles surgery, the kind of adversity that could cripple more insecure clubs. And make no mistake, Cobbins will be missed.
Still, OSU's star power remains, with Marcus Smart and Brown, who are flanked by Williams and Nash. Kamari Murphy has played well and offers optimism as a replacement for Cobbins. Phil Forte remains an offensive boost off the bench and opportunity now clears for Gary Gaskins, Marek Soucek and Leyton Hammonds to fill more prominent roles. And there's the curious case of Stevie Clark, whose status is up in the air after his arrest for marijuana possession New Year's Day.
There's no sense of panic among the Cowboys.
“First off, we lost the anchor to our team,” Williams said. “ (Cobbins) really handled things down in the paint. But all that's gong to change is everybody's going to have to do a little bit more, from rebounding to playing defense.
“Everybody's going to have to do more.”
The voice of reason.
And the voice of a veteran.
Teams are constructed differently in this era, with one-and-done players and itchy transfers requiring roster overhauls at various places. Kentucky has spun through one-year stars, to mixed results. Kansas got but one season out of Ben McLemore a year ago, although it was a good one, then rebuilt with as many as three more freshmen who could just be stopping off on their way to the NBA. And neither team is alone in that approach, with many schools hitching their fate to elite players, even for one year.
Still other programs have succeeded with the long-term construction approach. Butler. Wichita State. VCU. Villanova. George Mason. All they've done is combine for six Final Four appearances in the past eight seasons, reaping the benefits of veteran influence.
“There's nothing that can replace experience. Period,” Ford said. “I don't care what you're doing, what line of work you're in, experience and learning from history is a valuable lesson. And we've got some guys who have been through it.”
Older guys alone won't get it done. Skills remain a requirement.
“Give a coach truth serum and they'd love to have talent over experience most times,” said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. “But this Oklahoma State team has both.”