STILLWATER – Marcus Smart came back to win.
The NBA fame and fortune, ballin’ with the big boys, even taking on LeBron James and Kevin Durant — all that was put on hold, in part because of what happened last March in the NCAA Tournament, when Oklahoma State was quickly ushered out by Oregon.
“Oh man, that motivates me a lot,” Smart said this week. “I didn’t like that feeling at all. That’s one of the reasons I came back. So I’m going to do everything in my ability to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
That’s what Smart’s return season has essentially come down to, after so many missteps for him and his team.
Off to sunny Southern California, maybe Smart can discover some warmth for this cold and often dark season.
By winning when it matters most, beginning with OSU’s next NCAA Tournament opportunity on Friday against Gonzaga.
“This team’s suffered a lot of ups and downs, mainly a lot of downs,” Smart said. “The only way to go for us is up. That’s how we’re looking at it.”
Coming back hasn’t gone according to script, not for Smart or for the Cowboys. He was pegged for all the national player of the year awards, yet didn’t even repeat as Big 12 Player of the Year. OSU was pegged as a national title contender, naturally with Smart leading the way, amid the added appeal of a trip to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, back home in the Metroplex.
That’s how all the dots connected on paper.
Instead, the season became marked by wrong-way detours for OSU.
Injury. Distractions. Slumps. Suspensions.
As a result, too much losing resulted in too much pressure on Smart — although much of it internal — and too little fun.
On top of that, he’d been tagged a villain, mocked by opposing students as a perceived “flopper” and jeered by Kansas fans who neither appreciated his backflip on their bird a year ago, nor his wait-and-see approach to beloved newcomer Andrew Wiggins in the preseason.
Smart has regularly shrugged off the bad-guy perceptions. Same with the negative attention from enemy fans, which he considers a sign of respect.
“I think he should embrace it,” said Cowboys senior Markel Brown. “It’s college basketball. It’s a fun atmosphere. Everyone’s gunning for him. I think he should embrace the fact that he’s being looked at in that type of way.
“If you ask me, that’s fun. I like messing with the crowd and things like that. I don’t see it as a problem and I don’t think he should.”
Still, Smart is human. And the stress and strain, at times, has been noticeable.
After the Cowboys’ overtime loss to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, Smart allowed a glimpse of his edgy side, free-flowing a bit as reporters surrounded him in the locker room. One writer pressed him on if the NCAA Tournament would define his legacy.
“I think my legacy is already defined,” he said. “I’m a hard worker. Player. Teammate. I like to make my teammates better. I’m kind, but like Kevin Durant said, ‘Don’t let the kindness fool you. Don’t take it for weakness.’
“Between those lines I talk trash. I’m physical. I don’t respect you. But if you fall down, I’ll help you up. I’ll shake your hand. If you’re hurt, I’ll check on you and make sure you’re all right.
“Off the court, I’m one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. But on the court, I’m a pest. I know a lot of teams know and understand that.”
Within all that lies Smart’s utter disdain for losing. It’s all but unacceptable to him, making him the anti-AAU product of today’s summer programs.
And that’s why this weekend means so much, not in terms of legacy, but satisfaction.
Out in San Diego, maybe he can just be Marcus Smart again. There won’t be any student sections targeting No. 33. Maybe the laid-back locals will appreciate and enjoy just having him there.
And maybe Smart can finally appreciate coming back.
“It’s coming to an end here shortly,” said Phil Forte, Smart’s closest confidant. “I think he’s trying to enjoy it all and soak it all in. He’s not going to know when his last game is, so he’s going to go out there and have fun and enjoy being a college basketball player for a little while longer.”