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.