Marcus Smart could have been a lottery selection in last year's NBA draft. Instead, the talented guard returned to Oklahoma State and is now set to lead the Cowboys into the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
The top prospect hopes this trip is more memorable. Oklahoma State was bounced from the big dance by Oregon in the Round of 64 last season. Smart played well, tallying 14 points, nine rebounds, five steals and four assists, but it wasn't enough in a 13-point loss.
Things weren't looking good for awhile during the second half of this season as the Cowboys suffered through a seven-game losing streak. They were able to right the ship down the stretch, though. The rebound was highlighted by a win over Kansas and raises hopes heading into the tournament.
Let's take a closer look at the player leading the charge for Oklahoma State.
|Hometown||Flower Mound, Texas|
Smart played basketball in high school alongside current Cowboys teammate Phil Forte III.
He helped lead the United States' under-19 national team to a gold medal in the 2013 FIBA World Championship.
Set the freshman steals record in the Big 12 with 99 last season.
He recently celebrated his 20th birthday on March 6.
Smart played competitive football through sixth grade and also enjoys playing tennis, according to his profile on Oklahoma State's athletics site.
Review and Predictions
Smart averaged 15 points, nearly six rebounds, four assists and three steals as a freshman. That type of well-rounded production earned him Big 12 Player of the Year honors and made him an intriguing prospect should he have entered the NBA draft.
The talented guard opted against that route. Sean Highkin of USA Today passed along comments from him after he made the decision official back in April and he was confident returning to Oklahoma State was the right decision:
There's a lot of speculation going. I've been bashed and criticized that I probably made a mistake of coming back here, the NBA will be there, I should have took it, and this year's draft class is much weaker than next year's.
But I think I made the right decision. All that was telling me, from those people that said that, is they don't have confidence in my ability and my game to compete with those players next year. You guys have given me that confidence to do that, so I chose to stay here. I'm aware of how much money I am giving up.
Smart's numbers have remained mostly in line with his freshman production. He did raise his shooting percentage by around 20 points, helping him increase his scoring average slightly, but everything else is nearly identical.
Unfortunately, he made headlines for the wrong reasons in early February. Smart ended up falling into the stands after a play and, following an exchange of words, he ended up pushing a Texas Tech fan before being pulled away by teammates.
To his credit, Smart took full responsibility for his actions and apologized to everybody involved after it was announced he would be suspended for three games (via ESPN):
I want to apologize to the fan, whose name is Jeff Orr. I want to apologize to him. I want to apologize to my teammates, to my coaching staff, Coach Ford, my family, Oklahoma State University. This is not how I [conduct] myself, this is not how this program is ran. This is not how I was raised. I let my emotions get the best of me.
Just can't let that happen again. This is a lesson I'll have to learn from. The consequences that are coming with it, I'm taking full responsibility. No finger pointing. This is all upon me.
Oklahoma State lost all three contests while he sat out, but immediately went on a winning streak upon his return to get back on track.
Smart played very well after the suspension. He seemed more focused and that's what the Cowboys need if they are going to make any type of run in the tournament.
Matt Mosley of Fox Sports Southwest summed up the guard's play down the stretch:
Marcus Smart back to being the best player in the Big 12. He just sees things that other players don't.— Matt Mosley (@mattmosley) March 4, 2014
Will Smart and Co. bust brackets?
Looking ahead, the Cowboys should have a good chance to improve upon their early exit from last season. They are playing at a much higher level in recent weeks and the NCAA Tournament often comes down to which teams are playing the best, not who's been the best all season.
On an individual level, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Smart improve markedly on his regular-season numbers. His usage rate should increase in these must-win games and he's been playing at a high level since his return to the lineup.
The future is very bright for Smart, but he must remain focused on the task at hand for Oklahoma State to make some March noise.