STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) -- - Marcus Smart likely would have been a high pick in last spring's NBA draft, but after a protracted decision-making process, the point guard opted to return to Oklahoma State for his sophomore year.
Now the No. 8 Cowboys are a legitimate contender for the Big 12 title, and they'll begin their season Friday night as they take on Mississippi Valley State.
Smart, who led the team with 15.4 points and 4.2 assists per game and was second with 5.8 rebounds, believes Oklahoma State is on the verge of a special season.
After going 24-9, including a 13-5 record in the Big 12, last season, the fifth-seeded Cowboys were upset by then-No. 12 Oregon in the first round of the NCAA tournament, leaving some unfinished business to attend to.
''We're excited he came back,'' said OSU coach Travis Ford, whose team is tied with Syracuse for the eighth spot in the preseason Top 25. ''We've got a great leader on our basketball team, a guy that we can count on doing it the same way every single day. It's a joy to coach a guy like that every single day.''
The Cowboys are more than just a one-man team, though. Senior Markell Brown, who averaged 15.3 points and 4.4 rebounds, and junior Le'Bryan Nash, who averaged 14 points and 4.1 rebounds, both return, along with several other key role players.
The rosy outlook leaves Oklahoma State in an unfamiliar position, managing high expectations for a big season. The Cowboys were voted a co-favorite in the Big 12 along with nine-time defending conference champion Kansas.
''We still have a whole lot to prove, we haven't won anything,'' Ford said. ''Kansas is still the No. 1 team, no question. We're in the hunt. This is going to be a tough league.''
Smart displayed impressive maturity in reaching his decision to return for another season, ultimately acknowledging he wasn't quite ready for the NBA.
''That was my first year playing the point guard position primarily and I just didn't think I was ready to go at full speed just yet,'' Smart said. ''I'd rather stay here and have them teach me a lot more before I go to the next level.''
After missing most of last season to a wrist injury, junior Brian Williams is fully healthy and continuing to develop into a top-quality shutdown defender.
''Brian Williams is one of the greatest defenders in the country, in my opinion,'' Smart said. ''We can put him on anybody and he's going to get the job done.''
With the first seven slots in the lineup already set, Ford is looking for a deeper bench this season, noting that incoming freshman Leyton Hammonds has the inside track on number eight.
''You can go a really long way with seven,'' Ford said, ''but there's going to be some games where number eight and number nine needs to be the difference-maker.''
Nash averaged 14 points and 4.1 rebounds last season and appears ready to fulfill the immense promise he showed during the recruiting war that OSU won.
''The number four player coming out of high school, he was supposed to be one and done,'' Smart said. ''He's still getting there. This year, he's attacked the basket a lot more aggressively than I've ever seen.''
As the Cowboys' only senior starter, Brown has experienced a few lean years in Stillwater and provides leadership and perspective to his younger teammates.
''It says a lot about how far I've come from a losing team to a winning team,'' he said. ''They look up to me and listen to me because they know I've been through a lot. I started at the bottom and now I got everything in my hands.''
Mississippi Valley State may not provide much of a measuring stick for Oklahoma State's conference title aspirations after going 5-23 last season.
The Delta Devils are led by senior guard Darryl Marshall, who averaged 7.9 points last season, while junior college transfer Anthony McDonald could provide a lift. However, the team suffered a major loss with guard Davon Usher, who led the Southwestern Athletic Conference with 18.8 points per game last season, transferring to Delaware.
MVSU and Oklahoma State haven't met since 1996, a 77-74 Cowboys win.