Marcus Smart has always been admired for one defining characteristic: competitor.
Whether it's his own coach Travis Ford, or Billy Donovan or Jim Boeheim or Bill Self; among teammates, opponents, NBA scouts and general managers, that one trait is a common denominator of praise when it comes to Smart.
“He's probably the best competitor we've played against since I've been coaching at Kansas,” Self said back in the preseason. “He's a terrific competitor and he's a great kid.
“He can do a lot of different things, but the biggest thing he does is he wills his team to win. He's a great player, but that is his biggest quality in my eyes.”
While that quality may be Smart's greatest asset, it may also be a current liability.
If it's possible, Smart may be trying too hard. In pressing to perform — to will his team to win — the Cowboys sophomore may be stressing himself and his team, contributing to a three-game losing streak that carries onto the road Saturday at Texas Tech, a game that suddenly looms as a crossroads contest for Oklahoma State.
So, is it possible to try too hard?
“Yeah, it is,” Smart said. “I definitely have been doing that. I've stepped back a little bit and I'm trying not to press as much. I need to just go out there and play and help my teammates by playing and having fun. We haven't been having fun these past few games.”
Not much fun in losing.
Not for a team that entered this season with grand expectations, both internal and external.
Not for a player who returned as the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, opting not to jump to the NBA, despite the almost certainty of being a top-5 pick. And a player who returned to saddle up and carry his team to all their hopes and dreams, with the ultimate goal of a Final Four appearance in his backyard of Arlington, Texas.
Now there's a sense it all could be slipping away, if the Cowboys don't rally quick.
“You can tell when we're on the court, even when we're playing — whether we're up or we're coming back — you can tell we're just like … soulless out there, as Michael Cobbins put it,” Smart said.
“We can definitely see it as a team. We've watched film and we see it. I'd definitely say our team is trying too hard.”
And it starts with Smart.
Everything starts with Smart, who clearly doesn't appear to be having much fun himself.
He's been labeled a flopper and perceived as a villain. Teams have targeted him for physical play in an attempt to rattle him, with some success. Once poised and measured, Smart has allowed frustration to too frequently become a part of his personality.
“It is (weird), because obviously those aren't his intentions,” said teammate and longtime pal Phil Forte. “People kind of get the wrong perspective of him. He just plays hard and wants to win so bad and his competitiveness sometimes gets the best of him …. which is a shame because that doesn't really describe him at all.”