This is a truth that March bears: That no matter how celebrated a college basketball player might be, no matter the hype surrounding his game, no matter projections of an NBA lottery pick, nothing is given when the NCAA Tournament arrives.
Marcus Smart will depart school early for the riches of a professional contract with such a reality sprayed across his Oklahoma State resume, the Cowboys having been eliminated in their first NCAA game for a second straight year with him running the point.
Memo to Arizona: Don’t sleep on Gonzaga.
The Zags on Friday sent Smart and the Cowboys packing 85-77 in a West Regional game at Viejas Arena, advancing No. 8 seed Gonzaga into Sunday’s third round against the No. 1 Wildcats.
It meant an end to Smart’s college career, given the sophomore could have heard his name called in last year’s lottery and yet chose to return to school. That won’t happen again. Stillwater long ago accepted its time with Smart would conclude with this event.
Fact: The one vision most will hold of Smart in college was his shove of a belligerent Texas Tech fan this season that got the player a three-game suspension and caused many to question his makeup as a leader.
Silly. You can’t properly evaluate such things in a snapshot. Smart could have controlled his competitive fire more in the moment, but it’s that same aggressive nature that has NBA teams intrigued.
“I asked him in the locker room when his head was down, ‘Did you play hard?’ ” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “He said, ‘Yes.’ I told him, ‘You competed and played hard for every second.’
“Everyone respects and loves what he stands for. Obviously, there have been circumstances he has learned from that, two, three, five years from now, will help him in life. For the most part, I think he handled all the scrutiny and attention that goes along with being in those shoes very well. I’m not sure anyone could have lived up to all he was supposed to be for us.
“We sure asked him to do a lot on the court.”
That was the case again Friday, when Smart totaled 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, six steals and six turnovers. The guy was a smorgasbord of statistics, some good, some bad, some delivered out of control, some under it. He turns the ball over too much. Efficiency isn’t his greatest strength.
But he is also a unique blend of size and power (6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds) at a position that often lacks both, and yet how his skill set now translates to an NBA game that might not be so kind to a perimeter player with obvious flaws is unknown. He won’t lack for intensity, be sure of that.
Smart has no middle game. He’s either scoring from distance or at the rim. He isn’t the fastest player and yet owns a terrific first step. He’s more explosive than quick. He’s a lot like former Utah star Andre Miller, only more physical.
Miller, by the way, has played 16 NBA seasons.
“I was fortunate enough to coach Marcus in USA Basketball stuff over the summer,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “We knew what he was all about. He is a heck of a physical essence. He ended up with 23 points? I thought we did a pretty good job on him, you know?”
It was good enough.
Two years later, Oklahoma State has opening NCAA losses to Oregon and now Gonzaga, meaning the Cowboys never really took advantage of Smart’s presence. March is the only month that matters.
Oklahoma State has been a roller coaster of a team in six seasons under Ford, teasing you with impressive results for stretches and yet always a possession or two from imploding.
Gonzaga was better Friday. Better coached. Better prepared. Better players overall. Smart tried over 38 minutes to do too much, his team down 17-6 early and never able to sustain those runs that got them close in both halves.
“It’s very difficult,” Smart said. “We’ve been through a lot, ups and downs, so words can’t explain how I’m feeling right now. It’s a painful loss. I wasn’t ever worried about what people might think of me after (the shoving incident). Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and they’re going to think certain things whether they know or don’t know.
“I never regretted once coming back to school. It was my decision. The bond I have with this team and these guys will never be broken. They are the ones that made coming back all worth it.”
He was a rare college player who should enjoy a long, successful NBA career.
He also went winless in the NCAAs.
Where nothing is certain, nothing guaranteed.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.