STILLWATER — To understand why Marcus Smart is the best player in the Big 12, you need only to rewind to the biggest of the big plays in Bedlam.
It was the jump ball that he forced.
We're not talking about that jump ball. We're not referring to the improbable block of Steven Pledger's 3-pointer that resulted in a tie-up, an Oklahoma State possession and an end to the Oklahoma's upset hopes on Saturday.
No, when Cowboy coach Travis Ford broke down the game, there was another jump ball that Smart forced that stood out even more. It's a play that illustrates the impact that the Cowboy point guard has throughout every game and explains why he goes into Wednesday night's game against Kansas with a chance to all but wrap up Big 12 Player of the Year honors.
With less than a minute left in overtime Saturday, Le'Bryan Nash missed a free throw that eventually caromed beyond the 3-point line. Romero Osby dove on the floor and snagged the ball, but Smart decided to dive on the floor, too, and forced a jump ball.
Possession stayed with Oklahoma.
“Ten out of 10 people probably would've just let OU have it — because they had it — and just run back to the other end,” Ford said. “But he decides he's going to dive on the floor and tie it up.”
Moments later, Smart forced another jump ball with the block of Pledger, but because of the play he made forcing the jump ball on Osby, possession went to OSU.
The Sooners had to foul, and the Cowboys iced the game.
Without that dive-on-the-floor jump ball, the outcome of that 3-pointer-block jump ball would've been entirely different.
“That's a huge play,” Ford said of the first tie up.
Count it as another in the litany of big-time plays by a big-time player.
And really, if Smart wins Big 12 Player of the Year — as he should if the vote were taken today — it's going to be because of his propensity for big-time plays. He doesn't wow you with gaudy stats. He doesn't amaze you with his scoring average. He doesn't astonish you with his shooting percentage.
Not that any of those are terrible.
Smart is averaging 15.0 points, 4.5 assists. 2.9 steals and 0.8 blocks a game. Among Big 12 players, he ranks first in only one of those categories, steals. But among that same group of players, he ranks in the top 15 in each of those categories.
No other player in the league can say that.
“Huge impact on the game in every way,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said of Smart.
The OSU freshman changes the game on both ends of the floor more than any other player in the Big 12, and he does it in a variety of ways. On offense, he can do damage by shooting or passing or driving or drawing defenders. On defense, he can grab a rebound or steal a pass or force a bad shot.
He does all sorts of things well, and there's rarely a play that he doesn't do something that affects the game.
Not a lot of guys can say that.
“Marcus Smart is one of the best players in the country,” Kruger said.
Read that again — the Sooner coach called Smart one of the best players in the country. Not one of the best freshmen. One of the best players.
Of course, Smart is going to be on the court Wednesday night with another freshman who can boast the same. Kansas guard Ben McLemore comes to town, and people with a say so in end-of-the-year awards are sure to want to see how he and Smart compare while on the same court.
Safe to say Smart got the better of McLemore in their first matchup. Not only did the Cowboys win and end the Jayhawks' 33-game home-court winning streak earlier this month, but Smart also scored 25 points, including seven in crunch time.
“The bigger the occasion,” Cowboy guard and longtime Smart sidekick Phil Forte said, “he always seems to step up.”
Cowboy sharpshooter Markel Brown said, “We know at any given moment, he can make a spectacular play for this team to help us win.”
Smart is the reason that the Cowboys are in the driver's seat in the Big 12. No doubt this is a good team, but it has a chance to sweep the season series against the Jayhawks and pry the conference crown from their hands because of Smart. Because of the number of big plays he makes. Because of the way he impacts so much of every game.
Because of that, he deserves to be the front-runner for conference Player of the Year.
“It would be a great achievement for me,” Smart said, adding that he hasn't given much thought to winning the award but that he'd be honored to join the likes of Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin, who've won it in the past. “I'd go down with that same marking that they have. It'd be a blessing.”
It'd be a blessing that Smart has earned.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.