By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Monday’s one-point loss to Gonzaga was a rude awakening for the Oklahoma State University men’s basketball team. Gone are the soft teams of the early season. There are no easy games from here on out.
The Cowboys don’t get the chance to lick their wounds by drubbing another weak opponent. Instead, they must start Big 12 Conference play at 25th-ranked Kansas State at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
“Hopefully the Gonzaga game comes at a good time for us to ring our bell a little bit and keep us alert,” OSU coach Travis Ford said. “There are no more UT-Arlingtons, there are no more Tennessee Techs. We better be ready to battle because that’s what the Big 12 is about.”
“It was great playing a team like that because they’re a Big 12-caliber team,” center Philip Jurick said. “So going out there and facing some top talent I think really helped guys prepare for the Big 12 season.”
The schedule isn’t kind to the Cowboys either. The road trip to Manhattan, Kan., to face an 11-2 Wildcat squad under first-year coach Bruce Weber will be only the second true road game for the youthful Cowboys — the other being a road trip to Virginia Tech, in which Oklahoma State lost by 10.
“Hopefully the freshmen got ready for this in high school, and experienced it in the past,” junior Markel Brown said. “I think the Virginia Tech game helped out a little bit, but it’s still different in the Big 12 — going against heavy competition every night.”
With OSU’s squad made up largely of underclassmen, Ford is relying on Brown — the only Cowboy to have at least two full years of conference experience — to prepare the young group for what’s ahead.
“I’ve talked to Markel about talking to his teammates who haven’t played in the Big 12 about how when you hit the Big 12 it’s a little bit different in the fact that everybody knows each other extremely well by now and have 12 games to look at film,” Ford said. “... There’s always a little more into it on both sides. ... Now you’re trying to play for something. Now there’s something on the line, you can now win a trophy — there’s something tangible there you can get.”
The largest concern for the Cowboys heading into conference play is rebounding. After a stretch of solid games attacking the boards, OSU has recently fallen back into old habits against good opponents — being outrebounded by the Zags by 16 boards, including giving up 16 offensive rebounds.
“It’s fresh on our minds that we better rebound the basketball,” Ford said.
That’s one category a team trying to contend for a conference crown can’t be porous at in this conference. Heading into league play, only underachieving Baylor and underwhelming TCU average fewer rebounds per game than Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys average a meager plus-3.3 in rebounding margin — again, ahead of just Baylor, TCU and Bedlam rival Oklahoma. OSU’s first conference foe, Kansas State, is second in the league in both rebounding (41.2 per game) and rebounding margin (plus-8.9), and third in rebounding defense (32.3 per game).
“They’re a really good team at rebounding the ball, so it’ll be a great test for us coming off a game like Gonzaga,” Jurick said. “So we’re kind of looking forward to the challenge.”