STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) – Marcus Smart has calmed down, perhaps in time to save Oklahoma State’s season.
The dynamic point guard has been dominant since returning from a three-game suspension for shoving a fan at Texas Tech. In wins over the Red Raiders and TCU, he displayed a new sense of calm while averaging 16.5 points, 8.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 steals. The Cowboys (18-10, 6-9 Big 12) have bounced back from a seven-game losing streak and can strengthen their once-fading NCAA tournament hopes with a win Saturday at home against No. 5 Kansas.
At times before his suspension, Smart pressed to score while he was in a slump, and his misses led to frustration that boiled over and cost his team. He has learned that his demeanor affects his teammates.
”The more fun and relaxed I can be, the more fun and relaxed this team’s going to be,” he said.
Coach Travis Ford said the Cowboys are playing their best team ball in a long time, and Smart’s new approach and renewed focus are the main reasons.
”I think the last two games, he’s played the way that’s made him one of the best players in America, and that’s as far as if you look across the stat sheet, there’s a lot of big numbers,” Ford said. ”When he’s doing that, obviously, that makes him great and it makes our team a lot better.”
The Jayhawks (22-6, 13-2) already have clinched a share of the Big 12 title and can claim it outright on Saturday. Their success makes Saturday’s game an ideal test for the Cowboys to see if they truly are back on track.
The Cowboys have the Jayhawks’ attention. Last season, they ended Kansas’ 23-game home win streak, and Smart celebrated by doing a backflip. This season, in Lawrence, Kansas led by 17 at halftime, then held on to win 80-78 in a game that featured pushing, shoving and numerous technical fouls.
”I think the motivation is it’s Oklahoma State, and we’ve kind of developed a pretty good rivalry with them,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. ”The last three games have been really close, last-possession-type games.”
Kansas features Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, freshmen who could be top picks in this year’s NBA draft. Wiggins averages 16.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Embiid averages 11.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.
Embiid, a 7-foot, 250-pound center from Cameroon, had 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks in the first meeting.
”He made some nice blocks, and he’s got great timing,” Ford said of Embiid’s play in the first meeting. ”You know he’s in there. You know he’s in there.”
Oklahoma State counters with Smart, a preseason All-American who averages 17.4 points and 5.6 rebounds. Markel Brown averages 16.8 points and 5.5 rebounds and Le’Bryan Nash averages 14.4 points and 5.8 rebounds.
Oklahoma State has moved guard Phil Forte into the starting lineup, and the sophomore has flourished since Smart’s return. In the past two games, he’s averaged 21.5 points and made half of his 18 3-point shots. In the first game against Kansas, Forte came off the bench and scored 23 points.
”One reason why they’re playing better is because he’s played well, and he plays better whenever Marcus is in the game with him,” Self said. ”I do think that he’s (Forte) tough to guard. He stretches the defense and really allows driving opportunities for some of the other guys because you can’t leave him.”
Now that the Cowboys have put their distractions behind them and have returned to their winning ways, they feel the vibe has returned to the way it was when they won 15 of their first 17 games.
”You can tell that everybody’s enjoying themselves a little bit better now,” Smart said. ”Everybody’s lightened up. We’re not putting as much stress on each other. We’re just going out there and having fun.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .