STILLWATER — As a player, Travis Ford never cared for one particular message from his coaches.
“I didn't want to hear the coach say it doesn't matter who starts,” Ford said. “I didn't want to hear that.”
“When I became a coach,” Ford said, “I really started understanding and believing that it really doesn't matter.”
And so, with as many as 11 Cowboys vying for roles and playing time and, yes, even starting jobs, Ford finds himself stressing that starting isn't everything. The Oklahoma State coach recognizes it may be a hard sell, yet it's a potentially delicate concept he needs his players to buy into, for the sake of a young team carrying high expectations, both individually and collectively.
“It's hard to explain that to kids, it really is,” Ford said. “But as much as any team I've ever had, starting is not going to be a factor to how many minutes you play with this basketball team.
“I've told our guys, ‘The makeup of our team is such that you might get 10 minutes one game and the next game you might get 25.' I can name four, five, six guys on our team that could be like that.”
When the Cowboys open the season Friday night against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi — tip time 7 p.m. — the starters will be Keiton Page and Reger Dowell at guard, Jéan-Paul Olukemi, Le'Bryan Nash and Michael Cobbins at the forwards.
Page and Nash, the freshman phenom, and probably Olukemi have starting spots secured, for now. The rest of the lineup, as well the playing rotation, remains fluid.
Markel Brown, who started 10 games as a true freshman a year ago, figures prominently into plans. Fred Gulley, whose career has been hampered by shoulder injuries, is again healthy and battling Dowell for the starting point guard spot, with true freshman Cezar Guerrero in hot pursuit.
Philip Jurick, the closest thing this team has to a legit big man, will command minutes, especially against teams with size. Redshirt freshman Brian Williams shows value as a swingman who can provide offense from the perimeter. And if Czech Republic import Marek Soucek can continue to make strides in his transition to the American game, his skills could warrant minutes.
Ford must sort it all out.
“There's not a lot of drop-off, good or bad,” Ford said. “It's not like they're all great. Everybody's young and eager, trying to get better. But we've got some guys who can play and really bring stuff to our team.”
But does Ford have enough minutes to share and keep everyone happy?
Perhaps working in his favor is a chemistry hailed by all as a positive force.
“I've been a part of tons of basketball teams,” Page said, “but this is the closest. It just seems like we've meshed really, really well.”
Olukemi spent time a year ago as both a starter and the team's sixth man and managed it well.
“As long as you get in the game and you contribute and you stay positive, then good things will happen for you and your time will increase,” Olukemi said. “If everyone comes in and doesn't worry about who's starting and who's getting the most minutes and just gets in there and says, ‘I'm playing 5 or 10 or 15 minutes. And I'm going to dive on this ball and I'm going to rebound and block out and make sure that I have no negatives while I'm here, then the sky's the limit.'”
THREE OSU STORYLINES TO THE 2011-2012 SEASON
* 1. What's the rotation? The rotation and style of play will take time to sort out. With as many as 10 players vying for real minutes, coach Travis Ford will likely use much of the non-conference schedule to experiment with various combinations, finding who fits best together. Who emerges, especially at the guard spots, will determine just how fast the Cowboys play in their quest to push the pace. The depth and overall athleticism of the roster should result in more pressure defense.
* 2. Who are these guys? We'll know a lot about the Cowboys by the New Year. Ford has assembled a rugged nonconference schedule that will significantly test a young team that will be trying to find its way in the early going. There are games against No. 10 Pittsburgh, No. 19 Alabama and a potential matchup with No. 5 Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip-Off. New Mexico is on the fringe of the Top 25 and almost every nonconference team on the schedule is picked to contend in its league.
* 3. How good is Le'Bryan Nash? Physically, Nash is the complete package, with an NBA-ready body and the game to go with it as a versatile offensive player capable of playing four positions. Immediately, he gives the Cowboys a difference-maker and a go-to guy that was missing a year ago. The question that continues to accompany Nash – and has been acknowledged by Ford – is whether he can play hard for 40 minutes. The answer could define OSU's season.
G – Keiton Page (5-9, Sr.)
Pure shooter should get more open looks with better supporting cast
G – Reger Dowell (6-1, Jr.)
Quicker option for pushing the pace in PG time share with Fred Gulley
F – Michael Cobbins (6-8, Fr.)
Beefed up during redshirt year; uses athleticism and length inside
F – Jéan-Paul Olukemi (6-6, Jr.)
Slashing scorer could thrive in second season of Ford's system
F – Le'Bryan Nash (6-7, Fr.)
The highest-rated newcomer in the Big 12 gives OSU a go-to guy
G – Markel Brown (6-3, So.)
Athletic slasher and defender figures to get major minutes, could start
G – Fred Gulley (6-2, So.)
Back from two shoulder surgeries, Gulley offers defense and leadership
G – Cezar Guerrero (6-0, Fr.)
Could press for enhanced role as he gains comfort in the system
G/F – Brian Williams (6-5, Fr.)
After redshirt, perimeter shooter projects as instant offense off the bench
C – Philip Jurick (6-11, Jr.)
Rebounding and shot-blocking force, could start in certain matchups
Rest of Roster
F/C – Marek Soucek (7-0, Fr.)
A redshirt candidate, has varied skills but needs to bulk up
F – Darrell Williams (6-8, Sr.)
Appears headed for a redshirt while legal issues play out
G – Christien Sager (6-3, Fr.)
Former walk-on awarded available scholarship
OKLAHOMA STATE VS. TEXAS A&M-CORPUS CHRISTI
When: 7 p.m. today.
Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater.
Radio: KXXY 96.1 FM.
Three things to know:
1. OSU is 8-0 all-time against the Islanders, with all eight meetings coming in a 10-year span.
2. Corpus Christi lost its only exhibition game, 69-65, in overtime against Incarnate Word.
3. The Cowboys have won 16 straight season openers, dating back to the 1994-95 Final Four season, when those Pokes lost to BYU in the Great Alaska Shootout.
Oklahoma State (2-0 exhibitions)
Pos. - Player - Ht. - Wt. - Cl. - Pts. - Reb.
F - Jéan-Paul Olukemi - - 6-6 - Jr. - 13.5 - 5.5
F - Le'Bryan Nash - 6-7 - Fr. - 18.0 - 7.5
F - Michael Cobbins - 6-8 - Fr. - 7.5 - 6.5
G - Keiton Page - 5-9 - Sr. - 17.0 - 3.0*
G - Reger Dowell - 6-1 - Jr. - 0.0 - 1.5
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (0-1 exhibitions)
Pos. - Player - Ht. - Wt. - Cl. - Pts. - Reb.
F - Chris Hawkins-Mast - 6-6 - Sr. - 23.0 - 8.0
F - Myron Dempsey - 6-6 - Jr. - 10.0 - 5.0
C - Nate Maxey - 6-11 - Fr. - 2.0 - 4.0
G - Terence Jones - 6-2 - Jr - 14.0 - 3.0
G - Johnathan Jordan - 5-10 - Fr. - 5.0 - 8.0