STILLWATER — Wrapping up the final practice before leaving for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Cowboys coach Travis Ford gathered his squad to discuss goals and expectations.
His guys offered one of their own.
“I don't remember who it was,” said Ford, “but someone said, ‘Let's come back ranked.'
“I said, ‘Well, you better win all three.'”
Oklahoma State rolled back into Stillwater on Monday evening with a Tip-Off championship trophy, a 4-0 record and, yes, Top 25 status, entering The Associated Press poll at No. 20 and the coaches poll at No. 22.
The Cowboys swept through the tournament with wins over Akron, Tennessee and then-No. 6 North Carolina State, routing the Wolfpack 76-56 and adding credence to optimism that has surrounded a team seeking a return to the NCAA Tournament.
That optimism is spreading, with the first ranking of the Ford era as evidence. The last time the Cowboys were ranked: the week of Feb. 12, 2007.
“Rankings are all about the present,” Ford said. “It's what's happening right now, not a prediction of what's going to happen in the future necessarily. What we've done so far, it's been a good thing.
“So it's always fun to achieve a goal, and it was a goal for the team. My big thing is to always improve. But it's fun for them to set a goal and come back and be ranked.”
The news wasn't all good from Puerto Rico. Jéan-Paul Olukemi and Marek Soucek each suffered knee injuries that will be more closely examined in the coming days.
Ford said Olukemi's appears to be more severe than Soucek's, although he's holding out hope that neither is long-term.
“It doesn't look great with JP,” Ford said. “He's going to have an MRI. I keep praying, we all do, that it's not as bad as we think. Maybe it's not. Maybe it's a severe sprain or something like that. But the initial indications, it doesn't look good.
“Soucek's going to be out, but they don't think it's nearly as bad. Maybe a two-week deal, a sprain.”
Even short-handed, OSU played well, posting double-digit wins over Tennessee and N.C. State. Marcus Smart earned Most Valuable Player honors and was joined on the All-Tournament Team by Le'Bryan Nash, who scored 58 points in the three games. Most impressive to Ford, however, was the team's defense.
OSU held its three opponents to 30.7 percent shooting (56-of-182) from the floor and created 35 turnovers.
“We held some teams down defensively,” Ford said. “We went into the N.C. State game thinking, ‘We better score 75 points.' That's kind of what we thought. That's one of the most potent offensive teams we've seen.
“But we did a great job defensively. It was really fun to watch.”
The Cowboys should be equipped to hold their newfound ranking for a while. They're off until playing Portland State on Sunday in Gallagher-Iba Arena, where they'll be for seven of eight games before the start of the Big 12 schedule.
“We've got to be very humble with the early success, because there's a long season to go,” Ford said. “And we have a long way to go as a basketball team that needs to continue to improve.”
That's a message not lost on Smart.
“You take this as a learning experience,” said the freshman guard. “Yeah, we won. We beat three great teams. But it's all about how we perform in conference play. In conference play, things are going to be a lot harder. This is just a learning process.
“We're going to have to come back and work harder than we did for this trip.”