Marcus Smart (AP)
When guard Marcus Smart spurned the likes of North Carolina, Kansas and Texas to commit to middling Oklahoma State last Autumn, the top 10 recruit admits he caught even those closest to him by surprise.
Friends and family congratulated him on his decision, then asked why he didn't choose an established power. Fans on Twitter weren't nearly as polite.
"I've heard it all," Smart said with a chuckle. "I'd get on Twitter and people were saying I was dumb. I was an idiot. What am I thinking? That's why I'm never going to succeed. That definitely gives me motivation. When people say stuff like that, it gives me an extra kick to go out there and prove them wrong."
Smart's decision to play for Oklahoma State could be a turning point for a Cowboys program that lost 18 games last season and hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 2009. Travis Ford may need to get Oklahoma State to the NCAA tournament this season to win over an already restless fan base, but Smart's arrival and the return of several key players gives the fifth-year coach coach a realistic chance.
Even though Smart has the size to play on the wing at 6-foot-4, Ford will instead have him start at point guard because of his court vision, leadership skills and ability to create mismatches. He'll be surrounded by plenty of perimeter talent including guard Markel Brown, forward J.P. Olukemi and talented 6-foot-7 Le'Bryan Nash, a former McDonald's All-American looking to build on an inconsistent freshman season in which he put up respectable numbers but only showed flashes of promise.
What has Ford convinced Smart can turn that nucleus into a winning team is his new point guard's character and competitiveness.
"He does so many things to help his team win, whether it's rebounding, assists, diving after loose balls, and he's willing to do anything you ask him to," Ford said. "All he cares about is winning. It's reflected by how hard he plays and the attitude he plays with. He never quits. His motor is always running, and it's contagious to the other guys on the court. Even though he's just a freshman, guys have fed off his energy level and enthusiasm."
It's a testament to the influence of Smart's family that the Texas native has those qualities.
The youngest of four brothers who all played basketball in high school, Smart had to play with maximum effort during pickup games as a kid to be able to compete with them and their friends. He also has drawn inspiration from the death of his oldest brother Todd Westbrook, who succumbed to cancer in 2004 after an arduous 18-year battle.
"I remember one day, I was sitting on his bed and we were reminiscing about all the things he used to do," Smart said. "I never got to see him play before he got sick, but those stories made a big impression on me. I never talked to him about it, but in my heart, I knew I wanted to make him proud. He was going to go to college until he got really sick and that cut his dreams short. I feel like I'm finishing what he started."
By the time Smart was a year or two into high school, it became obvious he was going to have the chance to achieve that goal. An Oklahoma State assistant first saw him play the summer after his freshman year of high school. Scholarship offers from the Cowboys and numerous other programs started piling up soon afterward.
There are a lot of things Smart liked about Oklahoma State, from his relationship with the coaching staff, to the school's peerless facilities, to the fact that Stillwater is only a four-hour drive from his family's home. What truly set the Cowboys apart, however, was the way in which Ford and his staff recruited Smart and his best friend and high school teammate, Phil Forte.
Whereas other programs either didn't recruit Forte or made it clear he was only a priority if it could help land Smart, Ford went out of his way to pursue both players separately and to emphasize that he'd take one even if the other decided to go elsewhere. Ford was sincere too because the Cowboys needed a perimeter shooter of Forte's caliber with senior guard Keiton Page set to graduate after last season.
"We wanted to make sure they knew we weren't recruiting one to get the other," Ford said. "I went overboard to let Phil and his parents know that we need Phil Forte whether Marcus Smart comes or not. Yes, we wanted Marcus, but I wanted to make sure they knew Phil Forte could be a star in this system and that we needed him."
When Smart saw Oklahoma State's interest in Forte firsthand while both were on an official visit to Stillwater in Sept. 2011, it made his decision easier. The two friends discussed it with their families and committed to the Cowboys before they left campus to return home.
"The sincerity of the coaching staff was really big for me," Smart said. "A lot of schools of schools told me, 'If we take Phil too, will you come?' It was just like, 'No.' That's not fair to him. He's his own player and person, and he's good enough to go anywhere and play.
"Me and Phil are best friends. We have known each other since the third grade. That's my big thing. I think he deserves more credit than a lot of people give him."
Excitement to see Smart, Forte and the rest of the team in action is building at Oklahoma State, especially now that the Cowboys' season opener against UC Davis is merely eight days away. Smart has been preparing himself for that game for months now by working to get stronger in the weight room and to become a more consistent jump shooter.
Since arriving on campus in July, he has made about 1,000 pull-up jumpers and 3-pointers a week, building confidence in an area of his game where he was once hesitant. Adding that dimension can only help him achieve his ultimate goal this season: To lead Oklahoma State back to the NCAA tournament and to prove wrong those who questioned his decision to turn down the higher-profile schools that wanted him.
"We're going to surprise people this year," Smart said. "We have a lot of talent. We'll let people say what they want to say about us, but we're the type of team who can show you better than we can tell you."
Showtime starts a week from Friday. No doubt, Oklahoma State fans are looking forward to it.
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