SAN DIEGO --- Thirty minutes after an 85-77 second-round loss to Gonzaga that likely marked the end of his college career, Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart stood in the hallway outside his team's locker room explaining what went wrong.
"It seemed like every call went against us no matter what," Smart said. "When the calls go against you, it's hard to come back from that."
Smart went on to admit players have to play through bad calls and to credit Gonzaga for sinking enough big shots to win, but seldom could he make it through more than a question or two without coming back to the referees. Sometimes it seemed he blamed a bad whistle for Oklahoma State's inability to come back from a nine-point halftime deficit more than he did his team's 15 missed foul shots or inability to either stop Przemek Karnowski in the paint or Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell from the perimeter.
"It was frustrating," Smart said. "Every time we drove, we'd get hit. Nothing was called. Your natural reaction was to go to the ref and ask him nicely, but you're not getting any answer. He just looks at you like, 'So." Then you go down at the other end, touch him barely, and it's a foul. It just felt like that the whole game.
"It was tremendously hard. The fouls were a momentum changer. It's a Debbie Downer for you. Every time we'd go to the hole, we'd get hacked. You try to fight through it, but there's only so much you can take."
Smart's focus on the officiating was surprising because this wasn't a game that came down to a bad call or two.
Oklahoma State trailed by at least five points the entire second half despite a brilliant all-around performance from Smart, who finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and six steals. By the time forwards LeBryan Nash and Kamari Murphy fouled out in the game's final five minutes, the Cowboys were behind by 10 points and were already aggressively pressing full-court in an effort to force turnovers and get back in the game.
The loss was a discouraging end to a season that began with expectations of a Big 12 championship and a deep March run after Smart, Nash and Markel Brown all announced they were returning to school last spring. Oklahoma State instead needed a late surge just to make the NCAA tournament after injuries and a three-game suspension for Smart contributed to the Cowboys falling to 4-9 in the Big 12 in mid-February.
Opposing Big 12 fans will probably get a chuckle out of Smart complaining about not getting enough calls Friday night considering the reputation he has built for flopping. Smart has become so notorious for over-exaggerating contact that Iowa State's student section greeted him by flopping en masse during player introductions earlier this month and other opposing fans have brought homemade flop counters to the game or serenaded him with chants of "You're a flopper."
The call that bothered Smart most on Friday came when he was whistled for his fourth foul for shoving Gonzaga's Kyle Dranginis with 3:38 to play. Smart stared at the referee who made the call and put his palms in the air to signal that he was baffled by how such a call could be made.
"I felt he grabbed my arm as I was going up," Smart said. "The ref looked at me dead in my eyes, shrugged his shoulders and called the foul on me."
Smart is a future NBA lottery pick this June because of his speed, defensive instincts and ability to finish through contact, but if he is going to tap into his full potential, dialing back his bizarre obsession with the officiating is as important as developing a more consistent jump shot. It has become a season-long issue for him, one that has detracted from his focus at times and hurt his once spotless reputation among referees and fans.
Outside the Oklahoma State locker room, Smart was asked what he has learned from a season that has included a suspension for shoving a fan, a prolonged shooting slump and more losses than he probably ever expected.
"When you face adversity, that's when you need your team more than ever," Smart said. "The world's against you. It's you and your team, nobody else. It changes on you really fast. Everyone loves you one point and they hate you the next."
Relying on teammates is a good lesson for Smart to take, but so would changing his attitude a bit. If he spent less time bemoaning the calls that went against him, he might find he'd get more calls and he'd have more fans too.
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