I was at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin three years ago when Marcus Smart put his Flower Mound Marcus team on his back and led it to a Class 5A state title. He was the most gifted player on the court by a long shot, although he didn’t fully assert himself until Garland Lakeview Centennial put together a furious rally in the fourth quarter. With the season hanging in the balance, Smart simply took over in the final two minutes.
He won another state title in 2012 and then was voted Big 12 Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year at Oklahoma State. His decision to return for his sophomore season even though he was projected as a lottery pick seemed refreshingly old-fashioned. As ESPN’s lead Big 12 analyst Fran Fraschilla told "The Afternoon Show with Cowlishaw and Mosleyâ on Monday, Smart didn’t return to Stillwater to improve his draft status. He truly loved the college setting and wanted to take a crack at a national title.
Unfortunately, nothing about this season is going right for Smart. With his team in the midst of a Big 12 free-fall, Smart temporarily lost his mind Saturday in Lubbock, entering the stands to shove a heckler. Fraschilla told us that he’d seen something like this coming. Smart had let his emotions get the best of him several times over the past month and he didn’t like the fact that he’s been labeled one of the biggest floppers in the country.
The heckler is a man named Jeff Orr from Waco who’s successfully riled opposing players in the past. I don’t see the wisdom in a 50-something man screaming insults at 19-year-old college athletes, but that’s a topic for another day. Orr denied an initial report that he used a racial slur, but did admit that he referred to Smart as a "piece of crap.â Something tells me that phrase alone wouldn’t have caused the Oklahoma State guard to sprint into the stands. The Big 12 has suspended Smart for three games.
It was amazing that three Big 12 officials witnessed the shove and only assessed a technical. I’ve heard the Big 12’s explanation for that relatively light punishmentâ¦and it doesn’t hold water. I also think it doesn’t hold water that the conference is deferring questions on this incident to a commissioner who’s on assignment at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. John Underwood has been the Big 12 commissioner of basketball since 2002, so he’s definitely qualified to speak on this matter.
I’m also curious why Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford didn’t take charge of this volatile situation. With the Texas Tech crowd poised to rush the court, Ford should’ve suggested one of his assistants escort Smart to the locker room. In the footage I watched, Ford just seemed shell-shocked by the entire situation.
By Sunday, Ford seemed to have a better grasp on things. He condemned Smart while also expressing his admiration for him. I liked that Smart addressed the media without reading from a script. He was genuine in his apology. And he also made it a point to apologize to Orr. For his part, Orr has voluntarily elected not to attend any more Tech – home or road – this season.
Smart can only watch as his teammates try to steal a game against a much-improved Texas team Tuesday. I hope that what happened Saturday and the subsequent punishment will serve as a wakeup call for a tremendous young player. He’s still projected to go in the top 10 of the draft, but he’ll now face questions that seemed unfathomable last season.
Fraschilla said one thing Monday that really resonated with me. He believes that Ford was so pleased by Smart’s decision to stay in school that he gave him too much authority. In some ways, Smart had become more powerful than the head coach. And Fraschilla believes this coaching staff may have enabled some of Smart’s boorish behavior by not taking a stronger stand.
That’s not to paint Smart as some sort of victim. No matter what was said, he can’t leave the court and shove a fan. But missing three games could end up being a positive. He may gain some perspective by having something important taken away from him.
This also provides Ford an opportunity to show that he can guide his team through a very difficult period without it best player. It was a bad night for college basketball.
But Smart and this OSU program still have time to salvage the season. That process begins Tuesday night in a gym where Smart won back-to-back state titles.