Travis Ford is counting on a pair of McDonald's All-Americans to lead his Oklahoma State program out of the bottom half of the Big 12.
Freshman point guard Marcus Smart will join second-year forward Le'Bryan Nash this season and the pair will try to reverse a consistent fade by the Cowboys over the past few seasons.
Oklahoma State went the second round of the NCAA tournament in Ford's first season as coach, then got knocked off in the first round the following year. Then came the real dip, a quick exit in the NIT followed by last season's 15-18 finish with no postseason appearance.
This season starts Nov. 9 with a home game against UC Davis.
"We know that last year wasn't a good year for us, so we're just looking back on that and trying to respond from that," Nash said. "We're talented. There's no about that. ... We're talented. It's just: Go out there and do it."
That starts with Nash, who was a unanimous all-Big 12 preseason selection by the coaches after averaging 13.3 points as the league's top freshman a season ago. His numbers were even better in conference play before he missed the end of the season with a broken left hand.
"I get a lot of comments that I had a bad year. To me, I don't think I had a bad year," Nash said. "I ain't going to say I had a great year but I had an average freshman year — you know, 13 points is real good to be a freshman."
Ford wants even more from Nash, starting with a willingness to play harder and give second and third efforts. Ford believes that, unlike this time a year ago, Nash understands what he's demanding.
"The difference is last year I couldn't tell him what he did in high school is not going to equate that easily in college," Ford said. "Some guys have to go through it to understand it. He went through it — the frustrations, huge peaks and valleys. Now he gets it. Is he mature player? We'll see. There's a maturity process and he went through it. Do I see improvement in his play? No doubt about it. He's got a better mindset."
Ford, who's in the fifth year of a seven-year, $9.1 million contract, doesn't see the same issues with Smart.
"He won't struggle with what most freshman will. As far as playing hard, competing physically at this level, he has all that," Ford said. "He makes more extra effort plays than most freshmen."
Ford expects the 6-foot-4 Smart to play point guard more than he did in high school and solidify a position that has been a revolving door since Byron Eaton finished his senior year in Ford's debut season. Three players who manned the position last season — Fred Gulley, Reger Dowell and Cezar Guerrero — transferred out of the program over the course of the past year.
Smart has grabbed the reins, starting with a preseason exhibition tour in Spain and carrying over into practice when Nash has noticed him chasing down offensive rebounds and making key steals.
"He's just a winner. We need guys like that, especially at the point guard position," Nash said. "We need a floor general."
Despite the recent results, the Big 12's coaches thought highly enough of the Cowboys to pick them to finish third in the preseason poll, behind No. 7 Kansas and No. 19 Baylor. Those selections came before Oklahoma State lost starting forward Brian Williams to a season-ending wrist injury, possibly forcing Nash to shift more to power forward than his preferred place on the wing.
"I like the versatility of this team. We should be long and athletic. We lose some athleticism with Brian Williams out but we're still long and hopefully that can cause some havoc defensively," Ford said. "But I like that we have some guys from last year that got some very valuable experience that understand what they are about to get into."
That's certainly the case for Nash.
"I've got one year under my belt, so I know what's going to come from the teams, and obviously teams in the Big 12. I'm ready," Nash said. "It's just another mindset that I want to win a Big 12 championship. ... I'm going to do whatever it takes to help this team win a Big 12 championship."