We all know Marcus Smart. We first met him last winter, when he was busy terrorizing Big 12 opponents as a freshman. However, it turned out we didn’t know everything about Marcus back then, because he wound up shocking us all in April with his decision to eschew the NBA draft for a year. But boy, have we had the chance to get to know him all over again this winter. By virtue of conducting Oklahoma State’s red-hot start, Smart’s name has dominated headlines for the past six weeks, and rightfully so. After all, among the many individual stretches of Smart dominance was this display. And this shot. Many will tell you he is the favorite for National Player Of The Year, and if you feel like arguing with them, good luck. So far, Smart has been that good.
But hiding somewhere behind the nation’s love affair with Smart -- a fling I’m okay with, for the record -- is a pretty freaking good OSU basketball team. That team improved to 11-1 on Saturday night in Las Vegas, dispatching a solid Colorado club (now 10-2) in the process. Smart was his typically proficient self (18 points, three assists), but Saturday night served to remind us that he has some pretty capable teammates as well. Phil Forte, owner of the nation’s third-best individual efficiency rating entering the night, made four threes en route to a 16-point night. Le’Bryan Nash pitched in with 15 points of his own and did a little bit of everything else, contributing six rebounds, two assists, two steals, and three LOUD blocks. But of all the Cowboys who contributed to the cause, it was senior Markel Brown who offered the biggest lift. The senior scored 23 points, grabbed eleven rebounds, and even chipped in three assists: a domineering effort on a sizable stage. If you didn’t know much about the Pokes before Saturday night, Brown’s performance surely rated as eye-catching. But if you did? Just another lethally efficient demonstration from one of the nation’s most underrated players.
His overall output may not be as voluminous as his better-known teammate, but Brown nearly matches Smart when it comes to pure versatility. He rebounds well for a 6’3” guard (over four a game in each of the last three seasons), has distributed generously this season (3.1 assists per game), and all while earning the trust of Travis Ford on the defensive end, who didn’t think twice about alternating Smart and Brown on Colorado star Spencer Dinwiddie last night. Throw in the ability he’s best known for -- scoring the ball (15.7 ppg, 50 percent from the floor, 43 percent from three-point range this season) -- and Marcus Smart suddenly has a sidekick without a weakness. And while Smart has been praised for his summer work on his three-point stroke, it’s Brown who has returned to Stillwater and, in each of the last three seasons (including 2013-14), elevated each of his shooting percentages (FG, FT, and three-point) from the year prior. Across the board. I can promise you that the list of players with that feat attached to their name is short. Year after year, Markel Brown has made himself into a better, more efficient player; his team now stands to reap the rewards.
The list of impressive Oklahoma State victories continues to grow, but that doesn’t mean the Cowboys are without their question marks. Despite Brown’s efforts, Colorado was +11 on the glass Saturday night, and the small Cowboy front line also struggled to contain Buff big man Josh Scott down the stretch. With Big 12 play soon beginning, and the young Kansas bigs looking more comfortable by the game, that weakness surely looks to be tested down the road.
For now, though, life is good in Stillwater. After all, not only does Travis Ford have Smart – potentially the leading man of all of college basketball’s leading men -- running the show, but Brown also gives him one of the game’s finest supporting stars. Whether he is ever fully recognized for that role remains to be seen, but at least for one Saturday night -- center stage on the Las Vegas Strip nonetheless -- Markel Brown was impossible to miss. Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) is a Rush the Court national columnist.