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Marcus Smart giving Oklahoma State the push it needed

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State With Smart leading a four-game winning streak, the Cowboys have muscled their way back onto the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble. (William Purnell/Icon SMI)

Less than three weeks ago, Oklahoma State desperately needed someone to save them. The Cowboys had lost seven straight games, were staring at a best-case scenario of a .500 finish in the Big 12 and had gone from a top-10 team in late January to one that was in serious danger of missing the NCAA tournament. The only available savior was the guy coming off a three-game suspension for shoving a fan.

And yet Marcus Smart has indeed rescued Oklahoma State. Since returning from his temporary exile, the sophomore guard has led the Cowboys to four straight wins, including an upset of then-No. 5 Kansas last Saturday, and given a crucial push to his team's hopes of reaching the big dance.

In the most recent victory on Monday, a 16-point win over a Kansas State squad that had beaten Oklahoma State earlier in the season, Smart scored 18 points to go with six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Perhaps more impressively, he locked up the Wildcats' freshman star Marcus Foster, helping hold him scoreless in the second half. Or, as K-State coach Bruce Weber put it afterward, "Marcus Smart locked into Marcus Foster and he taught him a lesson."

The lesson Smart has taught the rest of the country is that it was too soon to give up on the Cowboys. Yes, they are still elbow-to-elbow with others on a crowded NCAA tournament bubble, still must travel to No. 16 Iowa State this weekend and still must play in the Big 12 tournament next week, but with Smart again playing like an end-to-end tempest, his team again looks like a force to be reckoned with this month.

In his four games back, Smart has improved his play in almost every category: points (18.0 points per game since returning, compared to 17.5 before), assists (6.5 compared to 4.3), steals (4.5 to 2.3), rebounds (5.8 to 5.7), and A/TO ratio (2.45, up from 1.62). His defense has been particularly notable. as he has almost as many steals in his four games back (18) as he did in his first 10 conference games (19). And while his overall shooting percentage is largely unchanged -- 42.2 from the field and 73.6 from the line before, 42.9 and 73.3 after -- he is shooting 36.4 percent from 3-point range, compared to 28.1 before. More notably, his game-by-game effective field goal percentage, which takes into account three-point shooting, has been 50.0, 50.0, 42.8 and 68.7, respectively, in that stretch.

His offensive rating since his return is 121.5, which is actually below the 128.8 it was in the team's first four conference games, before the trap door opened on OSU's season. Over the next six games, though, that rating fell to 101.7. All of which means that Smart is helping to save his team not by some extraordinary charge but by simply playing like he was expected to when he was on everybody's preseason All-America team. He's registering All-Big 12 and borderline All-America numbers again. He's in control and under control.

"You can't say enough about his effort," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said after the Kansas State win. "He is amazing defensively, because he can guard so many different positions and do it at a high level with great intensity. He soaks up the scouting report. He is really attentive to what we are doing defensively. What I loved about tonight and the Kansas game, is when he was struggling offensively, he was still getting after it on the defensive end. That's where we need to be."

The Cowboys aren't where they need to be just yet. The midseason swoon and Smart's moment of self-destruction at Texas Tech on Feb. 8 endangered their entire season. But Oklahoma State needed saving, and the question was whether Smart could manage that. The last four games have determined that he can, just by being himself.

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