Three weeks before he went into the Texas Tech stands to shove Jeff Orr, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart had another ugly encounter with fans.
This one was actually much worse.
It involved a group of teenage girls.
Smart and teammate Phil Forte came face-to-face with the high schoolers about 20 minutes after their Jan. 18 loss to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. As the players walked toward the Cowboys locker room after their postgame press conference, one of the girls approached them and smiled bashfully.
“Would you two mind if we got a quick picture?” she said.
Smart kept walking.
“Not right now,” he said.
Forte stopped and tried to coax his teammate into posing with the fans, grabbing his arm and reminding him it would only take a few seconds. Smart rolled his eyes.
“If we take a picture with them, we’ve got to take pictures with everyone,” Smart said as he pulled away.
The point would’ve been valid if there was a throng of fans in the tunnel. But there wasn’t. The only people within an earshot of the group were a pair of security guards—and me. I was trailing the twosome in hopes of scoring a few extra quotes for my game column.
As Smart and Forte barked back and forth for about 30 seconds, one thought lingered in my head.
With the way he’s acting, why would anyone even want a photo with Marcus Smart?
“Just take the picture!” Forte said forcefully, and Smart relented and posed for the shot.
As rude and arrogant as Smart came across that evening, I was willing to give him a free pass. Athletes go through mood swings and have bad days just like the rest of us. Losses sting. Not everyone has the grace of Peyton Manning, who was still in uniform when he signed an autograph for a beer salesman after getting crushed in the Super Bowl earlier this month.
If a player doesn’t feel like scribbling his name on a basketball or stopping to take a picture with a fan, he shouldn’t have to. Especially when he’s in enemy territory after a gut-wrenching defeat.
The girls’ timing couldn’t have been any worse.
Still, I always thought that Smart was different. Or at least that’s what I’d been told.
For the past year, television announcers have fawned over Smart to the point where it’s strange and uncomfortable. Florida’s Billy Donovan and Gonzaga’s Mark Few, who worked with Smart in USA Basketball, said the point guard may be the best competitor they’ve ever coached. NBA experts projected him to go as high as No. 3 in last summer’s draft—never mind that he’s a mediocre ball-handler who has shot just 28.7 percent from three-point range in his career.
Smart is a leader, they said, a guy who makes everyone around him better.
That may be the case.
But—as we now know—only sometimes.
That’s been the most baffling thing about the past few weeks. We don’t know who Marcus Smart is anymore. Is he the player who changed the entire culture of Oklahoma State’s program with his intensity and work ethic? Or is he the prima donna who snubbed those young girls at Allen Fieldhouse, the bully who punked that doofus fan at Texas Tech?
Smart was phenomenal as a freshman last season, when he led Oklahoma State to a 24-9 record overall and a 13-5 mark in the Big 12. Smart’s performance earned him Player of the Year honors in the conference and a spot on the Sporting News’ All-American team.
When faced with adversity this season, though, Smart has floundered. He’s clearly under an immense amount of pressure, and the shame of it all is that Smart brought the pressure upon himself.
Smart should’ve never returned to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season. Sure, it was a feel-good moment when Smart made the announcement last spring, but the Oklahoma State fans who clapped at his press conference had to have been wondering what Smart was thinking. Or if he was thinking at all.
Most experts guessed that Smart would’ve been a top-three pick after his freshman season, an instant millionaire who could’ve provided immediate help to his mother, who has one kidney and goes to dialysis three times a week.
But instead Smart chose to return for another year, risking injury and giving NBA scouts more chances to dissect his game, more opportunities to detect flaws that could lower his draft stock and cost him millions.
That’s exactly what’s happened.
Smart is averaging a team-high 17.5 points, but he’s shooting just 42.2 percent from the field overall and a measly 28.1 percent from three-point range. During one particularly brutal stretch last month he missed 25 of 28 shots from behind the arc and was 13-of-53 overall.
Once ranked as high as No. 5, the Cowboys had lost four straight games before Smart was suspended for three contests for shoving Orr, which was hardly the only sign Smart was beginning to crumble under the scrutiny and expectations he brought upon himself by deciding to return to school.
A week after big-timing those young fans at Allen Fieldhouse, Smart became frustrated with his play against West Virginia and kicked over a chair during a timeout. He drew a technical for doing a chin-up on the rim and slapping the backboard after a dunk at Kansas State, forcing him to the bench with foul trouble, which played a huge factor in the Cowboys’ loss.
Smart complained to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman about how “inconsistent” officials have been when it comes to enforcing the new hand-check rules.
And Monday night, while serving the final game of his three-game suspension, Smart criticized an Oklahoma State blogger on Twitter for being too negative.
In less than a month, Smart completely unraveled.
I’ve never heard anyone say Smart is a bad person. The story of Smart overcoming a tough neighborhood as a child and the death of his father speaks highly of his character and drive.
Instead, I look at Smart as a cautionary tale, an illustration of why it’s better to make the wise decision rather than the popular one when it comes to the NBA. The same people who applauded Smart’s choice a year ago now feel sorry for him because they realize it cost him a fortune.
An assistant coach at a high-level program told me last week that Smart’s confidants—his coaches and advisers—should’ve stepped in last spring and convinced him to turn pro, mapping out why it didn’t make sense to return to Oklahoma State.
“With all that’s happened now,” the coach said, “I don’t know how those people sleep at night.”
While last year’s draft class was considered weak, the 2014 class appears strong. Even if Smart would’ve had a banner season, there’s no way he would’ve gone in the top five.
The most recent mock drafts have dropped Smart from the No. 6 overall pick to the middle of the first round.
It’s obvious Smart knows it.
He’s become irritable, defensive and selfish. When Orr screamed at Smart that night in Lubbock, he was poking a caged bear.
Hopefully Smart has been able to simmer down during his three-game suspension. Hopefully he’s collected his thoughts and will revert to his old form Saturday, when he returns to a squad that has now lost seven straight.
At 16-10 overall and 4-9 in the Big 12, the Cowboys will need a miraculous finish to make the NCAA tournament. Getting them there through leadership and gutsy play would help Smart save a little face and reestablish his reputation.
Maybe then, someone will want his autograph again.
This Week’s Grades
A: Tubby Smith - The first-year Texas Tech coach has led his team to victories over Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma—all of whom have been ranked—and in the last week the Red Raiders have lost to No. 11 Iowa State and No. 8 Kansas by a combined seven points. People are excited about basketball in Lubbock, and the United Spirit Arena is becoming a difficult place to play. Texas Tech made the best hire of the offseason.
B: Terran Petteway - Nebraska’s sophomore wing has keyed the Cornhuskers’ resurgence under second-year coach Tim Miles. Petteway, who redshirted last season after beginning his career at Texas Tech, is averaging 17.7 points and 5.2 rebounds for a squad that is a surprising 6-6 in the Big Ten. Petteway scored 23 points in Sunday’s mammoth upset of then-No. 9 Michigan State in East Lansing.
C: Arizona and Syracuse - The Wildcats and Orange are proving what I’ve been saying all season. Although both are great teams, neither is significantly better than the other squads ranked in the Top 10. Syracuse’s inability to put away bad teams at home finally caught up with the Orange in Wednesday’s overtime loss to Boston College. Arizona lost in overtime to unranked Arizona State on Friday and needed overtime to put away Utah on Wednesday.
D: Washington - It may be time for the Huskies to make a coaching change. Lorenzo Romar has had some good moments, but he’s never taken Washington past the Sweet 16, and the Huskies appear destined for the NIT for the third straight season. Heck, two years ago, Washington won the Pac-12 regular-season title and didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. Washington’s program has too much going for it to accept that kind of mediocrity.
F: Court-storming snobs - I get so tired of people who try to dictate when it’s acceptable to storm a court. Do you really think the students in the stands—some of whom are probably liquored up—are thinking deeply about etiquette and tradition and sportsmanship? They’re simply having fun. At schools such as Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, students are basically told upon enrollment that it’s never OK to storm. And that’s fine. The tradition at those schools is unmatched. But as far as everywhere else? Let college students have their fun. What’s wrong with a little enthusiasm and excitement in college basketball?
Starting Five: Best first-year coaches (listed alphabetically)
Steve Alford, UCLA - The Bruins are 21-5 overall and, at 10-3, are just one game back of Arizona (11-2) in the Pac-12 race. Great hire by the Bruins.
Chris Collins, Northwestern - Who says you can’t win in Evanston? Collins has led the Wildcats to victories over Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue.
Bobby Hurley, Buffalo - One season after going 14-20, the Bulls are 15-8 overall and 9-4 in the MAC under Hurley, the former Duke star.
Richard Pitino, Minnesota - The Gophers head coach apparently takes after his father. Minnesota is 6-8 in the rugged Big Ten, but six of those losses have come by eight points or fewer and three have been in overtime.
Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin - Frank Martin’s former assistant hasn’t lost since Nov. 23. He’s 24-2 overall and 13-0 in the Southland Conference. Underwood won’t be at SFA long if he keeps this up.
A Dozen Words on My Top 12 Teams
1. Florida - Gators have won 18 straight games but nearly choked Wednesday against Auburn.
2. Wichita State - Shockers are on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated. Well-deserved.
3. Duke - Blue Devils play North Carolina, Syracuse in a span of 48 hours.
4. Syracuse - The Orange were playing with fire and they finally got burned Wednesday.
5. Louisville - Cardinals have won five straight games by an average of 26 points.
6. Kansas - Jayhawks will be looking for revenge Saturday against Texas in Allen Fieldhouse.
7. Kentucky - John Calipari’s squad played well at times against Florida and dominated Ole Miss.
8. Creighton - Can the Bluejays reach the Final Four? With Doug McDermott, why not?
9. Arizona - The margin for error is small, but the Wildcats are tough defensively.
10. Michigan State - Losing to Nebraska at home was a wake-up call for the Spartans.
11. San Diego State - The Aztecs are proving how much it helps to have experienced players.
12. Virginia - I’m calling it now. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers will win the ACC title.
Heating up: UCLA and Louisville
Cooling down: Florida State and Ole Miss
Too much credit: James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina; Jahii Carson, Arizona State
Not enough credit: Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati; Juwan Staten, West Virginia
Time for someone to hire: Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland
Time for someone to fire: Jeff Bzdelik (Wake Forest) and Stan Heath (South Florida)
Saddening: Oklahoma State
What the heck has happened to: Indiana and Temple
Quietly doing a nice job: Danny Manning, Tulsa
Would someone help me choose: The Big 12 MVP
Wings in Kansas City - As the regular season begins to wind down, I figured it was time to give a shoutout to the various wing haunts in my current city of residence.
Before I begin, I want to remind everyone that I’m a Texan at heart. I was born and raised in Dallas and, when the time is right, I plan to move back to my hometown. One thing keeping me from pulling the trigger, though, is that Dallas is a terrible wing city. There simply aren’t any good spots for top-quality wings. The bird there has no character (and, please, don’t pollute my inbox with emails about how good the wings are Pluckers, BW3, Angry Dog and all of those other pretenders).
Luckily, there are plenty of options in the Kansas City area, where it’s common knowledge that The Peanut wings are the best in town. One wing at The Peanut is like two wings anywhere else—mainly because you get the full wing, with the drummie still attached to the flapper. Things can get a bit messy when you’re eating one of these bad boys, but The Peanut’s tangy, peppery sauce and its homemade blue cheese makes digging into the trenches worthwhile.
No. 2 on my Kansas City wing list is Mac’s Sports Pub. Love the spicy garlic wings and the regular buffalo wings, too. My good friend Courtney McReynolds makes the sauce in-house. The wings aren’t small and wimpy, and it’s obvious she and her staff take a little pride in their preparation, even offering to toss them on the grill for a minute or so to give them that charred flavor before serving.
A few other recommendations: Tanner’s has the basic SBW (Standard Bar Wing) that won’t exactly wow you. But the charred wings (try either buffalo or teriyaki) are a hit. The “Simmons Wings” at Johnny’s Tavern are a local favorite. Johnny’s spreads a mixture of its barbecue and buffalo sauces on the wings, flash fries them and then tosses them on the grill.
In Lawrence, I’ve always been a fan of Henry T’s, which has long been a staple on my all-time top-five list. Lately, though, I’m hearing that Six Mile Tavern has made in-roads on the Lawrence wing scene. I’ll hit that up next. As in, this Saturday after the Kansas-Texas game.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.