Guard play makes Cowboys look plenty Smart
Feb 2, 2013 at 11:04p ET
It took ages to get back to the locker room — another step, another handshake, another pen. Wave after wave, autograph-seekers and well-wishers, bowing to the freshman with the killer smile. One long, last look before the kid takes his talents to South Beach and beyond.
Except here's the surreal part: It wasn't Ben McLemore. This was Marcus Smart, head to toe in Oklahoma State neon orange, taking the victory lap, riding the red carpet down Naismith Drive.
"Oh, it was crazy," Smart, the Cowboys' 6-foot-4 guard, chuckled after helping engineer an 85-80 upset of the No. 2 Jayhawks for OSU's first win at Allen Fieldhouse since 1989. "I knew, coming into this type of environment. I knew it was going to be very hostile."
They hissed. And booed. And snarled. And cursed. Smart kept beaming, kept grabbing offensive rebounds (eight in all, and a total of nine boards on the day), kept harassing a sloppy Jayhawk backcourt (five steals) and kept crashing the paint (9-for-11 from the free-throw line).
The angrier Kansas fans grew, the quicker Smart seemed to play. He was a pro wrestling baddie in sneakers, changing the script with each swing of the folding chair.
"Yeah, I don't know what it is with him," said teammate Markel Brown, who dropped 28 points and seven 3s on the Jayhawks. "I don't think he can get rattled very much. Like when he plays hard, no one's going to tell him (anything), because he's going to do the right thing."
Whenever Kansas figured it'd weathered a bad Cowboy shot, Smart would be waiting underneath the basket to calmly lay that sucker in. Whenever the Jayhawks (19-2, 7-1 Big 12) needed a clean possession, Smart would start poking his hands all over the place, trying to start a fast break the other direction.
"You have a (6-4) guard that is a man playing against boys," Kansas coach Bill Self said of Smart. "Let's just put it how it is. That's what it is, and he kicked our butt. He is good, and we knew it. We didn't compete for loose balls and felt sorry for ourselves and acted like little babies."
Still, in the battle of Diaper Dandies, it was the Cowboys (15-5, 5-3) who somehow managed to get in the last word. The Jayhawks' McLemore proved to be splendid as usual (23 points, five boards, two blocks), draining a trey with 50 seconds left that cut the visitors' lead to 77-72.
But over the final 26 seconds, Oklahoma State freshman guard Phil Forte — a lifelong KU fan whose father, Phil Sr., played football for the Jayhawks from 1983-86 — outscored the hosts 6-4, sealing the stunner with two free throws and a layup as time expired off a Hail-Mary feed from, you guessed it, Smart.
"It was like, ‘God, let's play close for a while,'" Forte Sr. said after the game. "I really wasn't thinking we'd come in here and win. I mean, who does, you know? Who does come in here and win?"
Not the Cowboys, certainly. At least, not for a long, long time. Oklahoma State snapped a bunch of streaks on one fell swoop, the major one being KU's 33 consecutive wins at home. The Phog had been especially unkind, historically, to the Pokes: Okie State's victory ended a run of 16 straight losing trips to Lawrence. It was the Cowboys' first road win over a top-five opponent since Jan. 2, 1958, which also came at Kansas.
"We kind of went out as ‘SEAL Team 13,' like (on the video game) ‘Call of Duty,'" Brown said. "We knew we were coming in (to) a very big and rowdy (place), kind of like those guys do. Going into places that they don't know about and (getting) kills.
"We know (Kansas) runs a nice high-low. We tried not to chase guys that were going to the high post ... We had to tell our guards to toughen up and get around their screens because (there was) no help there. I think we did a great job of that (Saturday), kind of kept (Kansas center Jeff) Withey out of his rhythm, and McLemore, a little bit. We kind of wore them out. Me making shots was very big ... wore them out a little bit.
"I think (KU guard Travis Releford) was so worried about guarding me that he wasn't worried about scoring on the other end, because he can go off any night. ... Then McLemore kind of got on me a little bit and I tried to do the same thing to him, try to take it at him, get him in foul trouble, and just take it to those guys. I think teams are kind of scared to take it at them in the paint because they've got Withey down there, but I think we did a great job of that."
For Self, and Kansas fans, Saturday proved to be a double-edged sword. Several warts were exposed; now, going forward, what the devil do you do about them?
For all its strengths — and there are many, this is still a potential 1 or 2 seed — Kansas has been living dangerously for weeks now. A team that has the nation's premier post defender in Withey and an NBA talent in McLemore also gets remarkably careless with the ball at times; the Cowboys trapped and harassed their way into 16 more Jayhawk turnovers, giveaways which in turn led to 26 Oklahoma State points.
"Let's just call it like it is," Self said. "We are mentally tough in some ways, but physically, this is our softest group of all time. We have never had a team like this. We get by and fake it, sometimes, but we aren't real thick and we aren't real strong."
And, while we’re up, let’s just say it: They’ve also been playing without a natural fit at point guard, right from the get-go. Over his last nine games, Elijah Johnson has turned it over an average of four times a tilt while shooting just 32.1 percent from the floor. That Johnson had the ball, KU down three, got the rock past midcourt with roughly five seconds left, and then lost it — to Smart, of all people — neatly summed up the afternoon.
"We got what we deserved today," Self said.
Smart, meantime, deserves more ink. While he doesn't have McLemore's smooth, gliding hops, the native of Flower Mound, Texas — who had Kansas among his top-three programs before picking OSU — is stronger, with a on-court mean streak, to boot. Smart went into the weekend ranked among the Big 12's top 10 in scoring, assists, free-throw percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, steals; defensive rebounds and minutes played. Whenever the Cowboys need it, he gives it.
"There's an old saying: ‘I can show you better than I can tell you,'" said Smart, who, like McLemore, is projected to turn pro in the spring. "I don't like to really brag about things like that. I just go out there and play."
In Smart's world, actions do most of the talking. A few seconds after the final buzzer sounded, as the Cowboys stormed the court in celebration, the Texan made himself some space, took a few careful steps and performed a backflip.
"This is a big win for us, man," Smart said, flashing that killer smile again. "It's definitely going to sink in. We just made history. That's a great feeling to have."
It's one thing to shock the world. But to do it in The House That Phog Built? That's more than history. That's a feeling you'll never forget.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org