(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)
By JEFF LATZKE
AP Sports Writer
STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) - Now that Oklahoma State is back in the Top 25 for the first time in five years, the 24th-ranked Cowboys want to show they really belong.
For top scorer Le'Bryan Nash, that means playing the very best no matter who happens to be the opponent.
The Cowboys (8-1) are going through a rare six-game home stand that ends with a much-anticipated New Year's Eve game against No. 14 Gonzaga. The challenge for coach Travis Ford been maintaining focus up until then.
There's been even more chatter about the Gonzaga game - one of the highest-profile nonconference opponents to play at Gallagher-Iba Arena in years - following the announcement that booster Boone Pickens had agreed to pay for all of the remaining tickets to be given away free.
"It was getting a lot of notoriety what Mr. Pickens did for us and things like that, which is wonderful and great, but everybody's been wanting to talk about that," Ford said. "That game seems so far away right now, it's unbelievable."
Instead, Ford is concerned with practices that haven't been as productive as he would like because Brian Williams and Marek Soucek are both out with injuries. The roster previously had been thinned by several players transferring and Darrell Williams' departure following his conviction on felony counts of rape by instrumentation and sexual battery.
As a result, there have been growing pains with some ugly basketball in stretches during victories against overmatched opponents.
"We can sit here and talk about it, make excuses for it, and that's basically what I'm sitting here doing," Ford said. "We would rather play games. Our practices, we just don't have a whole lot of bodies. We're not getting a whole lot done at practice. We're really not."
Ford said most of the Cowboys' development has come in 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 sessions. When the real games come along, Oklahoma State has had to learn to bring its A-game, even against inferior competition. A big lull led to an 11-0 run by Missouri State to start the second half, and Central Arkansas opened its game by taking a 22-11 before Ford woke his team up during a timeout.
"That's one of my weaknesses in my game. I play to the level of my competition," said Nash, who's averaging 16.6 points. "It happened earlier on this year, playing guys like Tennessee and N.C. State. I've been better about it now, and I can play how I want to play. I just have to keep telling myself to play hard and go out there to get the win.
"I let the game come to me and let my teammates give the ball to me in good situations where I can get a good shot off. When you play together, good things will happen for you."
Ford said he tries to coach his players as though every game is championship-caliber. But he understands that it's human nature to not play at such a high level every minute of every game.
"He's right. I'm glad he admits it," Ford said. "They say your first thing to correcting a problem is admitting it."
Nash drifted in and out last season, when he was named Big 12 Freshman of the Year. He'd follow a magnificent game with a dud, showing promise clouded by inconsistency. He has tried to force himself to remain aggressive this season, setting a goal of being among the best at earning free throws.
"When he's getting to the foul line, I know he's playing his best," Ford said. "All I have to do is look at that stat, if he's getting to the foul line, then he's doing what we're asking him to do."
If that approach rubs off on Nash's teammates, it's only for the better as Oklahoma State tries to get back to being a regular in the NCAA tournament and the Top 25. Both have been elusive in the years since Eddie Sutton left. But with Nash and fellow McDonald's All-American Marcus Smart, the Cowboys have their best talent yet under Ford.
"When you looked at their caliber of players, the talent level, you can tell it's a lot higher now than it was before," Central Arkansas coach Corliss Williamson said. "The young men they have now are taller, stronger and I think their basketball IQ is really high."