STILLWATER – Travis Ford refuses to surrender optimism, short- or long-term.
Now, the Oklahoma State men's basketball coach has maybe redefined his optimism, all things considered with these inconsistent Cowboys and all their in-season drama.
Still, Ford said he's never been in a better mood during a season and proclaims a renewed joy for going to work each day, despite challenges that have reshaped his roster to a skeleton crew that now relies on a former recruited walk-on to fill key minutes.
And also because of those challenges, and the way that his team continues to respond to them.
Next up: Iowa State, Tuesday night at 6, inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“I'm really enjoying coaching this basketball team,” Ford said. “It was very tough for a couple weeks. Now, I'm just really enjoying preparing every day. I'm here early and I'm here late, but I'm enjoying doing it and I'm enjoying walking into practice and giving these guys the game plan and saying, ‘Here it is, let's give it a shot.'
“They'll look at you and say, ‘Let's do it.'”
In what has evolved into a silver lining sort of season, there's this: freshman Brian Williams going off for a career-high 23 points in a breakout performance Saturday, keeping the Cowboys battling in an eventual 64-60 loss to Baylor.
And this: Markel Brown's big breakthrough, a career-best 30-point outburst at Texas Tech that sparked OSU's first conference road win in nearly two years, just three days before Williams' takeoff.
And six days before that, freshmen Le'Bryan Nash and Michael Cobbins came through with arguably their best games as Cowboys in an upset of then-No. 2 Missouri.
For Ford – and for OSU fans seeking the bright side – those four players project a core of hope for the future.
Only Nash was a starter when the season started. Now all four are regulars. And with major minutes being force-fed on each, the growing pains appear to be paying off.
“They're all showing signs,” Ford said. “They're all giving glimpses. They've all had their moments.
“We've tried to pound into them, ‘Take advantage of your opportunity. How many freshmen in the country get to do this?' – Markel's like one of them. ‘You get to do it together, that's exciting.'
“They've got nothing to lose.”
That foursome has come so far, Ford allows that if even at full strength, his ideal starting five would probably now feature them plus Keiton Page.
And while Brown and Nash and Cobbins and Williams are all revealing a growing confidence and competence on the floor, they're growing mentally, too.
Against Baylor, Ford said the Cowboys were adjusting on the fly.
“We were improvising out of timeouts a lot, drawing up stuff we'd never run before,” Ford said. “And they did a good job of executing. That's a big improvement. Our young guys, they used to really struggle with that. We'd draw up an adjustment and who knew what was going to happen.”
Page, as the senior captain, is the only constant in OSU's starting lineup this season. In all, the Cowboys have used 12 different combinations to start games.
That inconsistency has carried over to the floor, where the Cowboys are bobbing along the .500 mark at 11-12 overall and 4-6 in the Big 12.
Still, Page said he's seen enough to suggest the experience gained by these OSU's youngsters, despite the bumps along the way, will prove invaluable down the road.
“Just that maturity level you gain from a Big 12 season, a Big 12 Tournament, you get to go through all these battles, the type of game we just had against Baylor that come down to crunchtime,” Page said, “I think it just develops you as a player.
“I think every single game every night out, these guys are developing more and more and more.”