By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
It’s been nearly a decade since the last time Oklahoma State had been looked as a serious program in the Big 12 basketball landscape.
But with the return of likely NBA lottery pick Marcus Smart, along with the top six scorers from a year ago, Travis Ford’s 2013-14 Cowboy squad has everybody across the country — not just in the league — on notice.
For the first time since 2004-05, Oklahoma State is a favorite to win the Big 12 — sharing the honors this season with Kansas, which both shared in 2004, as well. The Cowboys sport the reigning conference Freshman and Player of the Year in Smart, who was also named the preseason player of the year, and will likely be a staple on many preseason top 25 polls.
With all the pomp and circumstance, how does Ford try to protect his relatively young squad — with just one senior in Markel Brown and really only one other player with two year’s of Big 12 experience in Le’Bryan Nash — focused for the upcoming campaign?
According to the players, by not even bringing it up.
“We know it’s there — we’re not blind or naive to the fact — but at the same time we’re just not going to bring it out to the open,” Smart said. “We’ll just leave it to the side and worry about it later and just worry about what we have to take care of this year.”
But that’s not to say Ford isn’t happy about the hype. After all, the reason ESPN will be in Stillwater this Friday for Homecoming & Hoops — and again at the end of the year for College GameDay against Kansas — is a sign of just how much talent the Pokes have returning from last year’s NCAA qualifying team.
“Anytime you’re a coach and you do have your top seven and most of your guys back, that’s a fun year. I don’t care what level it is, that’s a year you get excited about,” Ford said. “I don’t care where you finished the year before, you know, hopefully, you’re going to be a little bit better because you have everybody back.”
While the Cowboys have the majority of last year’s nucleus back, there are expectations surrounding the incoming recruiting class — both freshmen and junior college transfers — to play a role in this year’s success.
“They are meshing in pretty good right now. They just fell right into place with us,” said redshirt junior Michael Cobbins, who played a big role in the post last year after injuries slowed him down his first season. “They are funny, they hang out with us. On the court, they know what time it is and know how to work.”
Possibly the key to the Cowboys unseating Kansas for the conference crown won’t even suit up for the Cowboys. Instead, it’s the fans that fill Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Last year, Oklahoma State put together a campaign to bring the rowdy back to Gallagher-Iba Arena — which worked with the marquee games like Gonzaga and Kansas. But the players are looking forward to fans coming out in groves for their push at a Big 12 title.
“It’s tremendously important because it can create the momentum early in games for us,” Smart said. “... I feel that we established that rowdiness last year and it gives us something to go out there for and gets us pumped. As any other competitor would tell you, you feed off the adrenaline of the crowd and when you have a great crowd you’re going to do great and giving your all every game.”