STILLWATER, Okla. – Jean-Paul Olukemi has an idea of what he's about to face when Oklahoma State opens Big 12 play against No. 17 Kansas State: the conference bully.
The rugged, hard-nosed Wildcats (12-3) were picked as the preseason favorite to win the league crown. Their pursuit of the title begins Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena against the geared-up Cowboys (12-2).
"I think in order to stop being bullied, you've got to punch a bully in the mouth," Olukemi said. "Most bullies don't like to be punched and beat up. They like picking on people, but as soon as somebody else might hit them back, that's when you see their true character."
Oklahoma State got pushed around by the Wildcats at the last Big 12 tournament, but the Cowboys won the regular-season matchup at Kansas State last season. Kansas State has lost 10 straight games in Stillwater, never beating the Cowboys on their home floor since the inception of the Big 12.
"I know that they deny the wings, they play tough and they try to bully people. If you play into that and you let their toughness affect you and your ability to play, you're playing into their hands," Olukemi said. "So, we've just got to come out and be the stronger team and stay mentally strong and take care of the ball."
Marshall Moses wasn't ready to go quite as far in characterizing the Wildcats.
"I just think they're a good team," Moses said. "Their toughness is definitely their strong point as a team. You don't have to know the scouting report to know that. You can watch them on TV to see they're a tough group of guys."
Coach Travis Ford suggested that the game will be decided as much by smart decisions as brute force.
"They're an aggressive basketball team, no question about it. They've always been that," he said. "They get after it, they play very, very, very hard. That's always been the m.o. with Kansas State and it's something that they hang their hat on, and they should."
Kansas State represents the first ranked opponent this season for the Cowboys, who suffered their only losses so far against Virginia Tech in the 76 Classic and at Gonzaga on New Year's Eve. They've notched wins against Stanford, Alabama, Tulsa and DePaul in trying to get ready for conference play.
"I guess we'll find out very quickly. A tough beginning game," Ford said. "We're going to have to play better than any of the 14 games we've played so far."
Preseason All-America guard Jacob Pullen has returned from a suspension for the Wildcats, but No. 2 scorer Curtis Kelly remains out after the NCAA determined he received impermissible benefits.
"He's a great guy and a great player, so without him it could hurt their team, but not much. They're a great team," Moses said. "They've got great frontcourt players. ... They've got guys who go inside and get it done, even without Curtis Kelly."
Ford said he doesn't think Kelly's absence is "in the back of their mind at all and it's definitely, obviously something we're not thinking about."
"We better find something we haven't done yet and be able to play for 40 minutes, that we haven't done yet," Ford said. "We better have it in us somewhere or it'll be a long afternoon."