March 18, 2015

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) Oklahoma State's roller-coaster season under Travis Ford has one last chance to go up.

The Cowboys were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 this season, and little was expected of Ford's squad after losing stars Marcus Smart and Markel Brown to the NBA. Oklahoma State unexpectedly got off to a hot start in Big 12 play, and the Cowboys were ranked as high as No. 21 in the Top 25.

After beating ranked teams Texas, Kansas and Baylor in consecutive games, the Cowboys lost six of seven and finished in a tie for sixth in the conference, but still got into the NCAA Tournament. The ninth-seeded Cowboys play No. 8 seed Oregon Friday in Omaha, Nebraska.

Senior center Michael Cobbins said Ford deserves credit for spearheading Oklahoma State's transformation from last year's super-talented team into a gritty, tough-minded squad that fights for everything. Cobbins and point guard Anthony Hickey, a transfer from LSU, lead a defense that allows just 62 points per game and ranks in the top 25 nationally in blocked shots and steals per game.

''Really, it was just getting us to trust each other, and showing us that our defense is really what's going to make us work,'' Cobbins said.

Ford said he was proud of the way his team embraced its identity.

''We won a lot of big games against some great opponents,'' he said. ''Played in the best league America. We've played a very difficult schedule, and we were rewarded for that as far as getting into the NCAA Tournament. It's a great accomplishment for our team. I don't remember anybody predicting this.''

Senior forward Le'Bryan Nash, a second-team All-Big 12 pick, said Ford adjusted his approach a bit this season.

''I feel like this year, more than any other year, he's just letting us play more,'' Nash said. ''He's trying to be more of a player's coach and listen to us more and get our perspective of the game and what we've got to go through. It's the best year I've had with coach Ford. Me and him have come to an understanding, and I'm glad he's in my corner.''

Nash said the team started the season with a chip on its shoulder because of the preseason projections. That energy got mixed results.

''Sometimes, when people pick you low, sometimes you get excited for your success, and sometimes, we didn't know how to handle it,'' he said. ''We were getting all the praise for the three-game winning streak we went on, then you go on a four-game losing streak.''

He hopes the lesson has been learned now.

''We've felt the highest point, we've felt the lowest point, so I think we know where we're at. We know what we're good at, what we're not good at. At the end of the day, when you go into the NCAA Tournament, everybody has the same record, and that's zero,'' he said.

Part of the Cowboys' recent struggles can be attributed to Phil Forte's shooting slump. The second-team all-conference selection has made just 16 of 56 shots the past seven games.

''I just tell Phil all the time, every time in practice I get a chance, just keep shooting, and l know it's going to fall in,'' Nash said. ''It's going to happen. We've got to get him better shots, get him open looks, and make sure we encourage him as a teammate and as a friend.''

Nash said he believes in his team, in part because the Cowboys have five wins over ranked opponents and two against Top 10 squads.

''I feel like we still have a chance,'' he said. ''Anytime you have the opportunity to win a national championship, I think you should put your all in. We have a chance. We have an opportunity. Don't need to matter who we're facing. It needs to matter what OSU does.''

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Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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