STILLWATER – Travis Ford pegged his latest team for a talent boost and scheduled accordingly, lining up a series of challenging nonconference tests to ready Oklahoma State for the Big 12 schedule.
In retrospect, with OSU scuffling to a 7-6 start, did those early games help prepare the Cowboys, or hinder their progress?
The answer is upcoming.
OSU opens Big 12 play Wednesday night, with Texas Tech visiting Gallagher-Iba Arena for a 7 p.m. tip. The Red Raiders are in a rebuild mode, with 11 newcomers dominating the roster of first-year coach Billy Gillispie. In the rugged Big 12, this may be the closest thing to a soft opener.
And yet, nothing has come easy for these Cowboys, not even their wins.
Now OSU must play without Jéan-Paul Olukemi, lost for the year to a blown knee, and with sophomore guard Markel Brown's status questionable due to a hip-related injury. What's left is senior Keiton Page and a cast of Cowboys making their Big 12 debuts.
“We're playing a lot of freshmen out there at the same time with Keiton Page, who is doing everything in his little power to fight and claw,” Ford said. “We're doing everything we can. Our injuries are not helping us, but that's part of the game.
“I like our team. Does that mean we're going to go out and win the league? Well we're going to give it our best shot. I think we're better than we were a month ago.”
Still, Ford figured to be much better than this.
Ford was banking on improvement from Olukemi and Brown, as well as Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell, who are no longer with the team. And he counted on a boost from redshirt freshmen Michael Cobbins and Brian Williams, along with freshman point guard Cezar Guerrero, which has been slow coming.
And Ford's biggest reason to believe attached to the arrival of prep star Le'Bryan Nash, who hasn't yet responded to the physical or emotional demands of the transition to major college basketball.
In hindsight, maybe an ambitious nonconference schedule wasn't what this team needed. Maybe they needed to ease into things, gaining confidence and comfort with each other, rather than accumulating shots of disappointment.
“My four years here, this is definitely the toughest preseason we've had,” Page said. “A lot of teams like to call them cupcakes, we didn't have very many of those this year. We're battle-tested. We've been through ups and downs already.
“Of course, it's not going to be any easier in the Big 12. But we can use these games to prepare us.”
The losing has taken a toll on the Cowboys, both physically and mentally. And talk of the team outside the program isn't complimentary.
Saturday's setback to Virginia Tech, before a big home crowd, was particularly deflating.
“That's as upset as I've seen our guys,” Ford said. “They feel like they've let everybody else down. They hear what is being said about them.
“But our guys have stayed very positive. We understand who we are. We understand what's going on. We understand the schedule we've played.”
But is there enough to understand and take from that schedule to gain some benefit?
“We played a little bit of everything,” Williams said, “from the teams with good shooters to good post games, transition, half-court… I think we're ready.”
The Cowboys have no choice but to be ready.
“I'm realistic enough to not say we're one of the better teams in the Big 12,” Ford said. “We know what we need to work on. We just need to literally take it one game at a time. That's the definition of our basketball team at this point.
“We need to play every game like it's a championship game. We need to prepare and figure out how to stay in every game and give ourselves a chance to win at the end.”
Oklahoma State vs. Texas Tech
* When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
* Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater
* Radio: KXXY 96.1 FM
* TV: None
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
* Tech, with a roster that includes 11 newcomers, has struggled to mesh on the floor, averaging 17.4 turnovers a game.
* The Red Raiders, picked to finish last in the Big 12, has yet to post a notable win.
* Due to defections and injuries, the Cowboys are leaning on increased playing time and production from several players, including swingman Brian Williams and forward Marek Soucek.
Oklahoma State (7-6);;;;;
Texas Tech (7-5);;;;;