Smart on KU: ‘Hopefully, we can keep it PG’ in rematch at the Big 12 tournament
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Hate? Hate is such a strong word, a four-letter word, and Marcus Smart is trying to, you know, be on his best behavior.
"I mean, yeah, we respect Kansas, no doubt about it," Smart, the All-Big 12 point guard at Oklahoma State, said Wednesday night after his Cowboys stomped Texas Tech, 80-62, to earn a rematch with the Jayhawks in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals.
"We don’t hate Kansas at all. We don’t hate anybody from Kansas. We don’t hate the coaching staff. We love playing against that type of competition. But that respect goes out the door when you step between the lines."
Thursday afternoon, around 2 p.m., they’re stepping between those lines again. And after the rivals have split the last four meetings — four emotional, pointed, chippy, straight nasty meetings — you wonder if this town, this Sprint Center, is big enough for the both of ’em.
"Off the court, you respect them," said Smart, who scored 21 points, dished out five assists and racked up four steals the last time KU and the Pokes tussled, back on March 1 in Stillwater. "They’ve earned everything that they’ve worked for, that respect.
"But on the court, you’re not friends. You’re not supposed to be nice. You’re out there to play ball. You’re out there to beat the other team, the opposing team. So the respect factor kind of goes out the door."
And so it comes full circle. Cowboys, then Jayhawks, then Jayhawks, then Cowboys, with countless shoves and backflips and flops, real or imagined, in between. Whether you see Thursday as the culmination of a three-game series or a five-gamer, the end result is the same:
"Bragging rights," Cowboys forward Le’Bryan Nash said.
They always seemed pre-destined to meet here, on this stage — just two days earlier than we figured last October. The preseason co-favorites for the Big 12 title lock horns in the tournament quarterfinals, thanks to KU (23-8, 14-4 Big 12) doing what KU does and Oklahoma State going into a bizarre midseason tailspin that hit its nadir when Smart snapped and went all Jerry Springer on a Texas Tech fan in Lubbock.
That last incident got the Pokes’ point guard slapped with a three-game suspension, but he returned a kinder (allegedly), calmer (also allegedly) young man on Feb. 24, and the Cowboys (21-11, 8-10) have won six of seven since.
"He’s a competitor," Oklahoma State forward Leyton Hammonds said. "I’ve never seen anybody more competitive than Marcus Smart. He wants to win everything."
Everything. P-I-G, H-O-R-S-E, Red Light-Green Light. Even cards. Hammonds recalled setting up a game recently with his fellow teammates that was all lighthearted and fun — until Smart wanted in.
"And he’d lose," Hammonds said. "I’ll tell you, we won’t stop until he wins."
Which might partially explain, in a roundabout sort of way, the misunderstanding of March 1, when the Cowboys rallied for a 72-65 win, a win fueled by a surge by Smart and an injury to star Kansas center Joel Embiid, a win that ended with this rant by the Oklahoma State point guard, live, on ESPN:
"Before the game, the coaches showed us a quote of (Kansas coach) Bill Self saying he was coming here cutting down our nets, and he was going to win it outright in Stillwater. We couldn’t let that happen in our house, so I just knew I had to keep pushing until the end."
Self, a Cowboys alum, refuted that he said such a thing (at least publicly). Cowboys coach Travis Ford then said he never said Self had ever said such a thing (at least publicly). So …
"I mean, we heard it — we heard that it was said," Hammonds said with a grin. "I actually read it."
"It just got around to the team that it was said," Hammonds continued.
But nobody said …
"Maybe we just tried to add some fuel to our fire," Hammonds replied, grinning again. "That’s about it."
So Smart heard what he heard. Or he heard it in his head. Or he read it on Twitter. Or whatever.
"Anytime (it’s) Oklahoma State-Kansas, it’s always big," Nash said. "Especially for the guys on (this) team, because most of these guys got recruited by Kansas, like me and Smart.
"We just love playing against them — especially Bill Self. (He’s) one of the great coaches. When you get a win against Kansas, it just feels good. I really feel good when (we) beat KU."
The Cowboys were feeling awfully good Wednesday night, having flipped a tight game into a laugher in a hurry. Oklahoma State went on a 15-2 run midway through the first half as a 12-11 Tech lead became a 26-13 Red Raiders deficit. The slashing and burning continued well through the rest of the period, which ended with the Cowboys nursing a 46-23 cushion and shifting to cruise control.
"In order to be the best," said Smart, who dropped 18 points and seven boards on the Red Raiders, "we’ve got to beat the best."
Now, they’ll get that chance.
"It’s going to be a war," Smart said. "It’s two heavyweight fighters going at it. And may the best man win."
The Pokes want to prove March 1 wasn’t a fluke. The Jayhawks want to prove they’re a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, with or without Embiid patrolling the paint.
Also, bragging rights.
Especially bragging rights.
"It feels like I’m playing KU every other day," Smart chuckled. "The name always comes up. As a competitor, that’s what you want."
In a rivalry, that’s what you crave. So which knock-down, drag-out lovefest does this one feel like: Old-school Lakers-Celtics? Pistons-Bulls?
"I’ll probably say Pistons-Bulls," Smart replied. "It’s going to be real physical.
"It’s going to be a physical game, no doubt about it. Just, hopefully, we can keep it PG, I guess you can say."
Hopefully. America, consider yourself warned.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.