Jan 27, 2014; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Marcus Smart (33) reacts during the game Oklahoma Sooners at Lloyd Noble Center. Oklahoma won 88-76. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Return of Marcus Smart Makes Oklahoma State a Final Four Contender

A few weeks ago, I wrote column detailing Marcus Smart’s three-game suspension and his need for a break. Even before the infamous shove at Texas Tech, the Oklahoma State guard seemed out of sorts. He struggled with his shot and his team couldn’t win. Back on February 1, Scott Phillips of NBC Sports questioned Smart’s ability to lead the Cowboys:

 

But when you’re the unquestioned team leader, an All-American candidate and have the ball in your hands for the majority of the game, like Smart does, you can’t continue to force bad looks and play hero ball like the sophomore is currently doing and be called a great leader.

 

Phillips also wondered why he refused to drive to the basket more often:

 

Why continue to chuck threes when Smart is as tough as any guard in the country to contain off-the-dribble? Smart can get in the lane and knife through traffic and score — or find shooters with crisp passes — more times than not, so why does he continue to force things so much with his field goal attempts?

 

Something just didn’t look right with one of the nation’s best. The effort was there, but clouded by his poor play and attitude. Although the suspension probably cost the Pokes a couple of games, it actually helped Smart. He’s now led his team to four straight victories after beating Kansas State on Monday night. The former Flower Mound Marcus standout also seems calmer and more collected on the court since returning to play. His numbers have vastly improved, as well ( Stats via ESPN):

 

Games
Field Goal %
3-Point %
Assists
Steals
4 Losses Before Suspension (@Oklahoma, Baylor, Iowa St., @Texas Tech)36.9%18.5%155
4 Wins After Suspension (Texas Tech, @TCU, Kansas, KAnsas St.)45.9%36.4%2718

 

Smart’s ability to defend and distribute the ball well is what makes him so valuable to his team. During that losing streak, he forced too many bad shots at times . During this winning streak, he’s pushing the ball and finding open shooters like Markel Brown and Phil Forte to make plays. His active hands on the other side of the floor are giving opposing guards headaches, too.

The most impressive thing about Smart’s return, though, has been his second halves. He tends to sleepwalk through the first twenty minutes before dominating the remainder of the game. Here’s a breakdown of his halves in the last three victories(Stats via ESPN):

 

Opponent
First Half Points
Second Half Points
TCU215
Kansas120
Kansas State216

 

Travis Ford may need to hire some sort of hypnotist to convince Smart that he’s always playing during a second half. Oklahoma State fans must be pleased with the way the sophomore closes out wins, though.

So how far can the Cowboys advance in the Big Dance this month? They should be in the field of 68 now at 20-10, 8-9 in Big 12 play. Their five wins over RPI Top 50 teams doesn’t hurt their case, either. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently projects them as an 11 seed with a bye through the first round.

Even if this team is seeded this low in the tournament, there’s no cause for concern. Last year’s ninth-seeded Wichita State squad made the Final Four with less talent than this year’s Pokes. The 2011 VCU team, a #11 seed and one of the last teams to make the field, reached the Final Four, too. This season, there is no team in the country that Oklahoma State can’t play with. They will be a nightmare matchup for the coach that draws them on Selection Sunday.

Every title team always boasts at least one player with NBA talent. Smart obviously qualifies as that guy for the Cowboys. Over the last four games, he showed how he can carry his team when they need him the most. The  most scrutinized player in the country will now have a chance to carry them through the tournament once again.

Which player will show up? The guy who coasts through first halves and loses his cool? Or the guy who takes over in crunch time to beat Kansas on national television? Time will tell, but as my man Bart Scott always says….

Tags: Marcus Smart Oklahoma State

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