On Thursday, Marcus Smart emerged back into full public view for the first time in two weeks when he took questions at Oklahoma State about his recent actions, his suspension and his return to the Cowboys for Saturday's game against Texas Tech. Everyone can agree on this: What the star guard said on Thursday will matter infinitely less than what he does going forward.
Perhaps the biggest question Smart faces is one that will be answered starting this weekend, and it is simpler than questions about what happened in Lubbock, Texas, on Feb. 8: Can he save a season?
"I take full responsibility for my own actions -- it was my fault, and it came with a consequence," Smart told reporters in Stillwater, Okla., on Thursday. "I took that consequence, I dealt with it, the consequence is over. Now, it's time to get back to playing basketball."
The Cowboys lost all three games that Smart sat out after shoving a fan at Texas Tech and have now dropped seven in a row overall. Oklahoma State has plunged to 4-9 and ninth place in the 10-team Big 12, a near-catastrophic descent for a team that ranked No. 8 in the country as recently as the last week in January.
The jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament altogether is very real. To help escape it, Smart must be at his most productive and efficient while failing every hearing test he faces from opposing fans and players.
Should that happen, Oklahoma State might actually be able to resuscitate its season. The Cowboys welcome Smart back with a home game against a .500 Texas Tech squad and then play at TCU, which is winless in Big 12 play. Those are mere undercards for the three showdowns that will go a large way toward determining whether or not Smart and OSU will be on the sport's biggest stage next month: home games with Kansas and Kansas State on March 1 and 3, respectively, and a regular-season-ending date at Iowa State on March 8. An 82-50 win over the dreadful Horned Frogs on Jan. 15 is the only victory the Cowboys have registered this year against those five teams, all of whom they played with Smart in the lineup.
For his part, Smart averaged 18.6 points, seven rebounds and 4.4 assists against that quintet and shot 40 percent from the floor overall. But those figures basically approximate his season-long numbers (17.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 42 percent shooting) and they weren't enough to get Oklahoma State enough of the wins that, it turns out, they very much needed. Oklahoma State is just 3-9 against the RPI top 50, and its best non-conference win -- a November triumph over Memphis in Stillwater in which Smart scored 39 points -- is at least partially offset by a loss to those same Tigers on a neutral court less than two weeks later. The dire circumstances his team now faces will require that Smart be even better.
And that depends on a healthier approach. The three-game suspension, while mostly unwelcome, may have provided healing time for whatever nicks and aches Smart accrued from opponents’ physical approaches. Likewise, his mentality must be un-bruised; during his time off, Oklahoma State should have convinced him of the importance of moving on to the next play, under all circumstances.
What the Cowboys and their point guard are capable of at this point is debatable. What is certain: If Marcus Smart hasn’t emerged from his three-game exile with a sounder mind and body, then they’re beyond saving already. "Even though we've been having a rough patch where we've been losing, it's still been fun," Smart said. "I grew up with basketball my whole life. It's never going to stop being fun, but the day it does is the day I'm going to put it down. When you're not having fun anymore, then there's no reason to play. But I've been having a blast, and I plan to keep having fun."