STILLWATER — Oklahoma State, at 2-2, sits right in the middle of the Big 12 standings, lagging well behind 5-0 Kansas and looking down on 0-4 Texas Tech.
Yet the Cowboys aren't so much 2-2 with a bullet, but with an anvil, following Saturday's 41-point loss at Baylor and entering a nine-game stretch that features matchups with five ranked teams and five road games overall.
Consider, too, that OSU hasn't won a league road game since 2010, as they visit Iowa State Wednesday night (8 p.m., ESPNU) for Game 1 of this grueling run.
Cue the Travis Ford rally cry?
Ford's OSU teams have proven stubborn when counted out, rallying to make the NCAA Tournament in each of his first two seasons and loitering in the 68-team conversation much of last year, despite a 6-10 conference finish. So write them off at your own risk.
Still, do these Cowboys have something special in them?
“I think it's a time for all of us to stand up a little bit,” said Keiton Page, OSU's only senior and the one connection, along with Ford, to each of those recent resilient teams.
“I know how this team is; I know how these guys were feeling after the Baylor game. I don't have a doubt how they're going to respond.”
Ford also knows who this team is – a cast of eight available scholarship players that includes five freshmen, three of whom are starters. So these Cowboys are short on experience, with only Page and sophomore Markel Brown veterans of Big 12 play, but also short on size and shooters and effective rebounders.
For all the overachiever, little-guy competitiveness that drives Ford, he's not ready to predict any stirring run by his latest squad.
“Oh, I don't know,” Ford said. “I don't ever want to say you can't, at all. The ball's always thrown up and you've always got a chance.
“Our makeup is a little different than some of those (other) teams.”
Ford's first team, in 2008-09, was 3-6 in league play when Byron Eaton found himself as a point guard – at Ford's urging – and the Cowboys came together late, producing a six-game Big 12 winning streak that all but secured the program's first NCAA Tournament berth in four years. That team also had Terrell Harris, James Anderson and Obi Muonelo.
The following year, OSU stood 4-5 as losers of three straight in the Big 12, but responded with a three-game winning streak on its way to a 9-7 conference finish.
“James Anderson was phenomenal,” Ford said of the Big 12 Player of the Year. “Obi Muonelo maximized his potential.”
Last year didn't offer the same success story, yet the Cowboys didn't go quietly either, posting quality wins over No. 17 Kansas State, No. 14 Missouri and Baylor.
“Somehow we figured out how to win 20 games and make it to the second round of the NIT,” Ford said.
For the first time under Ford, 20 wins appears out of reach, with the Cowboys 9-8 overall.
Ford's focus, for now, is simply on getting to 10.
“We've got to prepare for every game like it's a championship game,” he said.
Ford has also adjusted his preparation. In previous years, Mike Noteware in his media relations department would plop the stat sheets for OSU's next three opponents on Ford's desk.
“I told him to stop that,” Ford said. “I promise you I didn't know who we played next until after the Baylor game. Had no idea.
“That's no disrespect to Iowa State. I'm trying to focus on one game at a time, trying to get our team better and trying to focus on a game plan to survive through the game and give ourselves a chance at the end to win the game.”
And games. There appear to be wins for the taking in this year's Big 12, if the Cowboys are up for taking them.
Already, league is revealing itself as top-heavy, with only Kansas, Baylor (4-1) and Missouri (4-1) owning winning conference records. Iowa State has been a pleasant surprise, yet enters the game with OSU on a two-game losing streak. Kansas State, in the rankings at No. 25, is 1-3 and preseason favorite Texas A&M stands 1-4.
And then there are the Cowboys, coming off the league's worst defeat.
“That wasn't us the other day,” Ford said. “And I'm hoping that our guys are mature enough, even though they're young, to be able to look at the film and be as upset as I am and to use it as a challenge and as a fuel.
“It should be that, ‘Hey, I don't care how old you are, how weak you are right now, how small you are, it doesn't matter.' Doesn't mean that you are going to win every game, but you sure can compete.”
Oklahoma State at Iowa State
* When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
* Where: Hilton Coliseum, Ames
* Radio: KXXY 96.1 FM
* TV: ESPNU
THREE THINGS TO KNOW:
* In his second year as coach, Fred Hoiberg has overhauled the ISU roster with transfers, including four from Division I programs.
* Royce White, a transfer from Minnesota, is a 6-8, 270 point forward who leads the Cyclones in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks. He'll even bring the ball up the floor, creating a major matchup problem for OSU.
* Tyrus McGee, a junior college transfer and ISU's sixth man, is from Stringtown.
Oklahoma State (9-8, 2-2);;;;;
Iowa State (12-5, 2-2);;;;;