STILLWATER — The youngest of four brothers, Marcus Smart learned early that he had to elevate his game against the big boys.
“You've got to bring a little something special,” Smart said.
Nothing's changed for the Oklahoma State freshman, who so far has broken out his basketball best in the biggest games.
Against the Cowboys' five major foes — Tennessee, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, Gonzaga and Kansas State — Smart has averaged 20.6 points, all while giving OSU all it envisioned at the point guard position: assists, steals, leadership, even rebounds, an average of 6.2 in those games.
“A lot of people say I play better in big games,” Smart said. “To an extent, I'd like to think that's the case. It's just something about having a big crowd there, that feeling of the atmosphere going and how big of a game it is, just gets me prepared and going.”
Smart's play, coupled with an influence that has already transformed the attitude of his team, remains a major reason the Cowboys are expected to contend in the Big 12.
“I've seen enough. You can watch him on tape once,” said TCU coach Trent Johnson, who gets an up-close look at Smart and the Cowboys Wednesday night at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“I think he's really special. I think he's what's great for basketball. I mean, he wins. He does all the little things. He's coachable.”
As Johnson rolls through his take on a changed Cowboys' persona, it's an indirect nod to Smart, who has had the greatest influence on the team's newfound toughness.
“When you start looking at their whole team, with how hard they play and how nasty they are — and I say nasty in a positive way,” Johnson said. “When you see the improvement of Markel Brown, how his skill level has improved and how relentless he is. They've got a real tough team and a real competitive team.
“And they've got a great player.”
Smart's total impact is wide-ranging. He's averaging 14.3 points and leads the team with 64 assists and a Big 12-best 34 steals in 13 games. The 6-foot-4 guard is second on the team in rebounding, averaging 6.1 per game, trailing only center Philip Jurick. He's the only player in the Big 12 who ranks in the top 15 of all five major categories: scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots.
The praise for Smart has been widespread, ranging from ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla a year ago, to Florida's Billy Donovan and Gonzaga's Mark Few — two coaches who worked with Smart on the U.S. U18 team last summer — to Kansas coach Bill Self most recently.
“A player like Marcus Smart is so vocal and so tenacious and such a winner that he would impact any program at any level,” Self said this week.
Especially in the biggest games.
In those bright-lights moments, Smart seems to elevate his play, sensing his team's need for a boost. In an early statement win over Tennessee, Smart went for 17 points and nine rebounds. In a rout of then-No. 6 North Carolina State, 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. And in OSU's three losses, games where Smart worked to will the Cowboys to wins, he had 18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists at Virginia Tech; 23 points and six assists against No. 9 Gonzaga; and a career-high 25 points and five rebounds at No. 18 Kansas State.
Not that Smart takes games, even minutes, off. If anything, his intense work ethic has been an intangible that has become contagious to teammates. Still, he does seem to recognize when he's needed most, especially scoring.
“I think he does have another gear,” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “I think he realizes the difference between Kansas State and Tennessee Tech, yeah.”
Phil Forte, who has been Smart's teammate dating back to AAU ball and two Texas state title teams at Flower Mound Marcus High, has seen this all before.
“That's been him,” Forte said. “Every time there's a big game, you can count on him. He loves the spotlight. The thing with him, he's always going to play hard. His motor's always running and he's always trying to do everything he can to give his team a chance to win.”
Early on, he was trying to give himself a chance, particularly against his brother Michael, who was closest in age. Those days are not lost on Marcus.
“Taking me to the gym,” he said, “playing one-on-one against my older brothers. And Michael taking me to play with his friends, taking a beating on the battlefield — the court is my battlefield.
“I was always taught, ‘Give it your all in every game.' But there's just something that comes out whenever it's a big-time game. The atmosphere, there's just a feeling you get that gets you going, that extra oomph inside you and that aggression you want to play.”
Oklahoma State vs. TCU
* When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
* Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater
* Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1
* TV: KOCB-34 (Cox 11/HD 711; Dish 34; DirecTV 34; U-Verse 34, HD 1034)
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
* The Horned Frogs have been decimated by injuries. Leading scorer Amric Fields (knee) is out for the season and starting forward Jarvis Ray (foot) is out until mid-February. Freshman center Aaron Durley (knee) was lost before the season began.
* TCU lost at home to Texas Tech on Saturday, missing on what appeared to be its best shot at a Big 12 win.
* The Cowboys have won 10 straight conference home openers.