- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 27, 2010

STILLWATER, OKLA. (AP) - Outside of those wearing orange, expectations aren’t particularly high for Oklahoma State, even though the Cowboys are coming off consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

The Cowboys must replace Big 12 player of the year James Anderson and another key contributor in Obi Muonelo, who combined to average 35.6 points per game and took most of the clutch shots. Big 12 coaches picked the Cowboys to finish eighth in the conference _ a sign, perhaps, of the perception that Oklahoma State might struggle to make it 3-for-3 in NCAA appearances under coach Travis Ford.

Not so fast, senior guard and team captain Nick Sidorakis said Wednesday.

“It’s expected of us now,” Sidorakis said, not a trace of doubt in his voice. “We know what it takes to get there.”

Under Eddie Sutton, Oklahoma State became an NCAA tournament staple, appearing in 13 out of 14 years during one stretch. But his last season ended in an NIT berth in 2006 and that’s where the Cowboys also ended up in their two seasons under Sean Sutton.

Ford, who turned around a failing program at Eastern Kentucky before enjoying success at Massachusetts, guided the Cowboys back to the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, although it certainly was not an easy process in 2010. The Cowboys had to overcome the midseason loss of starting point guard Ray Penn to a stress fracture and needed upsets of Kansas State and then-No. 1 Kansas along the way to secure an NCAA bid.

After reaching the tournament’s second round in 2009, the Cowboys fell to Georgia Tech in the first round and finished 22-11.

Penn is healthy and although the Cowboys have only one full-time returning starter _ shooting guard Keiton Page _ they have a plethora of players who’ve started at some point, including Penn, point guard Fred Gulley and forward Marshall Moses. Another forward who started 13 games last year, Matt Pilgrim, has been suspended indefinitely but Ford has hinted Pilgrim could return, although the coach offered no new information on the situation Wednesday.

Juco transfer Darrell Williams could help provide front-line depth and Ford has raved about incoming freshman guard Markel Brown, last year’s Louisiana prep player of the year.

Players say Ford _ who played for Rick Pitino’s high-speed Kentucky teams _ wants the Cowboys to pick up the pace this season.

“We’re dreaming bigger than just making the tournament,” Penn said. “That’s cool, just making the tournament. But with the team that we have, that would be like, to me, underachieving.”

Page also said the Cowboys are ready to prove skeptics wrong.

“It’s something we should expect,” he said. “I know we’re picked eighth in the Big 12 right now, but we’re trying to come out every day and practice like we have something to prove and kind of play with a chip on our shoulder. We’re trying to prove to people that we aren’t the eighth-best team in the Big 12.”

Ford cautioned against too much optimism, pointing out that NCAA tournament regulars like North Carolina, UCLA and Connecticut failed to make the field last season. But he says his team certainly is capable.

Ford said he hopes his younger players understand why the Cowboys made it to the tournament the past two seasons.

“We didn’t make the NCAA tournament because we were the most talented overall team,” Ford said. “We had a group of hungry guys, a close-knit group of guys … and we had great leadership and guys followed. They need to understand and embrace why those teams (the last two seasons) made it.

“This team has probably got as much talent, top to bottom, as those teams did. The challenge with this team is they’re going to have to become mentally tougher, to be able to handle adversity. A lot of these guys don’t understand how hard you have to play on a consistent basis every single day to compete at the highest level to make an NCAA tournament. That’s a challenge.”

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