STILLWATER — Marcus Smart stood midcourt inside Gallagher-Iba Arena, ball cradled under one arm at his hip, issuing a directive more than a suggestion.
The Cowboys had already played seven games — full-court and full-tilt, run-and-gun sessions offered by strength coach Jake Manzelmann as a fun conditioning alternative — and the sweat and dragging legs were a clear indicator of the hard work put in on this random summer afternoon. Several teammates had taken a seat and considered a good day's work done.
Yet there was Smart, acting all Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks in the movie “Miracle,” when the U.S. hockey coach made his guys skate endless sprints following a lackluster loss, blowing his whistle and barking, “Again.”
Smart isn't the coach, he's Oklahoma State's star sophomore. Still, he's every bit this team's leader and driving force, by word and by example.
He's a worker. And, above all, he competes.
In games. In practice. In the summer. Anywhere and everywhere — Smart competes.
“He's probably the best competitor we've played against since I've been coaching at Kansas,” said Jayhawks coach Bill Self. “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.”
Smart willed the Cowboys into a winner as a freshman, transforming the culture of the club with his unbridled work ethic and a toughness he exemplifies by leading the team in dives on the floor for loose balls. He doesn't play the modern superstar card, preferring getting dirty over playing diva.
He's here for one reason: to win.
Not to score or dunk or launch lovely 3-point shots with an arm extended to accentuate his pose, although he can score and more, like rebound and assist and defend like a maniac.
“We've got a great leader, a guy that we can count on every single day, doing it the same way,” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “And yes, he's a good basketball player and all that, but his leadership is tremendous. It's a joy to coach a guy like that every single day.”
And with Smart, it is every day.
“We have numerous NBA scouts at every practice; numerous,” Ford said. “From two to 15. And some of them when they come in, especially lately, have never seen him play live. Which is not uncommon. Some of them are new scouts.
“I tell them, ‘Well, you're about to see the hardest-working guy you've ever seen. And he's going to be the loudest guy in here. And it's going to be from the beginning of practice to the end of practice.'
“They're all like, ‘How do you know that?' As long as I've ever known him, it's never been any different. Ever. I don't care if it's the second practice of the day, the day before a game, the day after a game, it's never wavered.”
Smart, by all accounts, was a lock to go No. 2 in last year's NBA Draft. But he passed that up, along with all that goes with it, to return to the Cowboys … to win.
OSU won behind Smart a year ago, finishing 24-9, one game out of first place in the Big 12 standings and advancing to the NCAA Tournament following a two-year absence. But the Cowboys lost in their NCAA opener to Oregon, leaving Smart feeling unfulfilled.
Would he still be wearing orange and black had the Cowboys made a run last March?
“Probably not,” Smart said. “Probably not.”
That's the blessing of last year's early NCAA exit. Smart is back, along with Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash and a roster that is both deep and talented.
And he's ready to win — bigger.
“After the Oregon loss, I hold myself accountable and I hold my teammates accountable,” Smart said. “I didn't think I played, that we as a group, as a team, to the best of our ability. We all knew it. We could see it in each other's faces.
“It just leaves a bad tasted in my mouth every time it's mentioned.”
So the Cowboys are out to edit their ending.
Already, the storyline has changed. Under the radar last season, they're ranked No. 8 now as the preseason co-favorite with Kansas in the Big 12.
Smart presses his teammates to win, too.
So if they get a little tired and grumpy, he's there to remind them.
“That's great for this team,” Brown said. “On days when you don't want to play, and Marcus is out there busting his butt, you can't look at him and not do anything about it.
“Marcus pushes this team to play harder and to stay on his level of competitiveness. That's great for this team and where we need to go.”