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.”
Perceptions of Smart aren't the only issue, or else his growing role as Public Enemy No. 1 wouldn't be a problem.
“It's a story because it's part of a larger narrative with him in that he's not playing well,” SI.com's Seth Davis said this week.
There's that, too. And it's not so much that Smart isn't playing well overall, as it is he's playing differently than when he dominated games a year ago. Before, he didn't care if he scored, focused instead on making everyone around him better. And when he did score, it was usually around the basket or at the foul line.
Now, after working on improving his perimeter game in the offseason, Smart's shot selection has become questionable. He's fired up 117 attempts from 3-point range, after trying 131 all last season. And he's rarely connecting, making 28.2 percent — 22 percent in Big 12 play. Over the past five games, four of those losses, Smart is 4-of-33 from long distance.
“And you hurt for the kid, because he's a super kid,” Davis said. “And he wants it so badly — you can see how badly he wants it. And it's messing with his mind.
“He's taking bad shots. He's forcing things. He's losing his composure.”
Ford says that Smart isn't being selfish, yet perhaps stubborn in his competitive push to lead this team, especially now that the team's identity is in transition with the injured Cobbins lost for the season.
“Sometimes you've just got to get back to the basics,” Ford said. “I think Marcus understands it. I don't think you can ever play too hard or try too hard. It's just always got to be channeled in the right way.”
Beyond shot selection, Smart's stat line still reads strong. He leads the Big 12 in steals (2.3) and ranks fourth in scoring (17.3), seventh in assists (4.4) and is averaging 5.7 rebounds.
Smart continues to impact games, playing hard at all times, especially as a dogged defender.
Still, he recognizes he can be better, whether in letting the flow of the game come to him on the offensive end or in fighting off frustrations created by other teams' tactics or a perceived lack of calls from officials.
“Sometimes, you have to take ‘I' out of the picture,” Smart said. “This is a team sport. If I'm not my best, how can my team be its best? I'm supposed to be one of the captains on the team. And I'm not at my best every day.
“And I hold myself accountable.”