2013-14 Oklahoma State Men's Basketball Preview: It All Starts With Smart

Mark Travis/But The Game Is On

Oklahoma State's basketball program has Final Four aspirations this season thanks to a strong returning cast, and it all starts with the best player in school history.

Legendary coach John Wooden once said that success is never final and that failure is never fatal, but that it is the courage that counts.

I'm not sure there's a more apt way to describe Marcus Smart.

It's rare that a 19-year old kid is defined by his moral substance and exemplary precedent - those are terms we preserve in the vernacular for veteran players, or maybe the Pope - but everyone that has ever been around Smart will tell you that the conviction with which he approaches the game is admirable.

That's what makes the road to the most hyped and anticipated season in OSU history a much smoother ride. Whereas other schools that have been out of the spotlight for a while may be content with the additional recognition or collapse under the burden that comes with expectations, with an even-keeled, ambitious and talented leader like Smart, Oklahoma State can expect this team to reach its full potential.

Whether or not their ceiling is as high as we think it is has yet to be determined, but Marcus is not the kind of person that will be satisfied with results similar to what happened last year. I could tell that much about his personality by how stern his voice was when he told me that last year's first round loss to Oregon was a "total disgrace to myself and my teammates."

Aside from the example Marcus sets behind closed doors, which will be much harder for head coach Travis Ford to replace than any of Smart's tangible exploits, his biggest contribution for the Cowboys this season will be how he gets others involved. While Smart posted strong assist numbers last season, it was his first time playing point guard full-time and it was the first time he'd ever been asked to run an offense. With a year in the system under his belt and after a year of playing alongside guys like Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash, Smart is in a better position to succeed than he was during his freshman season.

It was Oklahoma State's middling offense (or, more specifically, their lack of floor spacing) that held them back from being a championship team in 2012. The Cowboys didn't turn it over a ton, got good looks inside the arc and had a pair of foul drawing machines in Smart and Nash, but their lack of threats from beyond the arc allowed defenses to aggressively attack ball-handlers and sag into the paint to prevent penetration. Smart's individual improvement as an outside shooter will help the offense by making it tougher on defenses to sag off him on pick-and-rolls without paying for it, but surrounding Smart with better marksmen will also be key.

At times last season it seemed as if only Phil Forte, Smart's high school buddy, would effectively maneuver his way into open spots on the floor. Markel Brown, who has turned himself into a reliable three-point shooter, and even Nash, who will occasionally act as a floor stretching big when he plays the four, need to work off the ball more when there isn't any weakside motion. Smart will be more familiar with Oklahoma State's other two stars when they take the floor together this season, which should result in more fluid play, but it's up to his teammates to put themselves in the right positions when Smart attacks.

True freshman point guard Stevie Clark, the top recruit in the state of Oklahoma this year, is billed as a solid shooter, so we may see a lot of two point guard line-ups this season, which is when the Cowboys are at their best. A significant role for Clark could also lead to our first real look at how Smart works as an off-the-ball weapon. As an unproven shooter, it would seem odd, but I can envision Smart functioning very well with some secondary actions and curl screens, and I'd like to see how an opposing point guard would deal with Smart's linebacker frame crushing them on a pick.

Smart is a utilitarian at heart, a player that wants to get his teammates involved moreso than he wants to dominate the highlights, someone who thrives on the success of his peers. What made him such a joy to watch last season was ability to toe the line between facilitator and scorer, and how he always seemed to flick that switch late in games when the Pokes needed it the most.

This season should be no different for Marcus. Smart has a good supporting cast around him and he's the harbinger of one of the stingiest defenses in the nation (OSU ranked 15th in defensive efficiency last season according to KenPom), a unit that will keep the Cowboys in virtually every game no matter how well they shoot the ball. And if the Pokes are able to boost their offensive efficiency by way of a more well-rounded attack, this season could be one for the ages.

But even if this team falls short of its lofty goals, whether it's by barely missing out on the Big 12 title or succumbing to the madness in March, it's important to note that Smart's impact on the program has been profound.

To an extent, the value Smart provides as a leader and as a symbol for the program outweighs however many points or assists per game he may average. With the way he carries himself he would be a useful player even if he had an average skill set. But instead Smart is the rare player that combines the ability of a superstar with the mindset of a walk-on grinding for a shot to prove himself, perfectly defining the identity Travis Ford wants his program to be known for.

Win or lose, success or failure, Marcus Smart has personally ushered the rowdy back to Oklahoma State, reinvigorating one of the nation's most historic programs, energizing one of the country's most legendary arenas and laying the foundation for the next memorable chapter in OSU's history.

You can't ask for much more from a guy who turned down millions of dollars, a starting job in the NBA and the celebrity lifestyle, to come back to rustic Stillwater, Oklahoma, to be your point guard for one more year.

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