Gleeful cheers filled the Oklahoma State Student Union. Coach Travis Ford couldn’t stop smiling. I couldn’t lift my jaw off the floor. A college basketball miracle occurred when Marcus Smart announced his return for a sophomore season last April. The projected lottery pick spurned millions of dollars to stay in school. Nobody does that. Why did Smart?
He wanted to avenge the team’s sluggish opening round loss to Oregon in the NCAA Tournament. He wanted to play another season with longtime friend and virtual brother Phil Forte. He wanted lead one the nation’s most talented teams, with Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash coming back, too. He wanted one last chance to be a kid.
Debate ensued around the country. What if Smart suffered an injury? What if his draft stock dropped? Did he just make the biggest mistake of his life? How would he respond to the criticism?
The reigning Big 12 Player of the Year quieted his critics early with a terrific start to the 2013-14 campaign. His sensational 39-point performance in a 101-80 win over then #11 Memphis on November 19 made him the talk of the sport. He paced the Cowboys to a 12-1 non-conference record with improved shooting and tenacious defense. Was Smart the best player in the country? Could he surpass all those prized freshmen to go number one in this summer’s draft?
How times have changed.
The first sign of concern was during an 81-75 home victory over West Virginia on January 25. Smart recorded his worst game of the season, shooting 1-7 from the field for a season-low five points. He played only 25 minutes before fouling out, displaying animated frustration along the way.
We completely forgot about Nash’s incredible 29-point, 9 rebound performance. Instead, we focused on an enraged Smart kicking a chair as he left the court.
Then came the losses. Dropping a tough road contest at Oklahoma is nothing to be ashamed of. Dropping back-to-back home tilts to Baylor and Iowa State is. Who was expected to step up and end the slide? Smart, of course. There were also troubles off the court for the Pokes. Starting forward Michael Cobbins tore his Achilles tendon to end his season . Talented freshman guard Stevie Clark was arrested for a second time and subsequently kicked off the team. Who was expected to replace the lost production? Smart, again.
Imagine the pressure he must have felt going into the Texas Tech game last Saturday night. His team had lost four of their last five games and desperately needed a win in Lubbock. His draft stock continued to fall as his game continued to struggle. The unanimous preseason All-American now answered questions about his flopping reputation instead of Oklahoma State’s Final Four chances. This was not the plan when Smart decided to return.
He had to prove himself.
He had to win.