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Bulls men host talented Smart, Cowboys

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Published:   |   Updated: November 24, 2013 at 10:08 PM

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TAMPA — He’s unusual.

That’s the case even when not considering his luminescent basketball skills, which earned him a unanimous spot on the Associated Press preseason All-American team.

Oklahoma State sophomore guard Marcus Smart, possibly the most decorated talent ever to visit the USF Sun Dome, returned to school when everyone expected him to become an instant millionaire. In an era when one-and-done seems to be the norm, Smart declined almost-certain status as a top-five NBA draft pick.

Because of that, the transient world of college basketball has a familiar face. The No. 7-ranked Cowboys (4-0), who visit the University of South Florida Bulls (4-0) tonight, might be a Final Four contender.

“I think it’s kind of crazy how everybody seems to know what’s best for you,’’ said Smart, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, by telephone before the Cowboys arrived in Tampa. “People bashed me and criticized me. I’m very aware of the money I gave up. That doesn’t have to be explained to me.

“I think I made the right decision for me. I don’t know if I was ready (for the NBA). That’s a grown-man league. For the moment, I’m happy being a kid in college and helping my team. You’re only a kid once. Money isn’t everything. You’ve got to be happy.’’

Money isn’t everything?

He’s unusual, all right.

“I am surprised he’s still here, but I love that he made an old-school decision like that,’’ USF coach Stan Heath said. “That carrot in front of you is so large.

“Sure, there have been tons of bad decisions made (by players leaving early for the NBA). But when you’re 19, 20 years old, you feel semi-invincible. You’ve had people telling you that you’re special for years and years. It takes a special kind of guy to stay in college ball for his game, his education, his social aspects, whatever the reasons. I have a ton of respect for him.’’

Smart, 19, was the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year and National Freshman of the Year in 2012-13. He led OSU in scoring (15.4) and assists (4.2), while tying for second in rebounding (5.8). He also led the Big 12 in steals (3.0).

Last week, Smart had a career-high 39 points in OSU’s 101-80 dismantling of the Memphis Tigers, lifting his four-game scoring average to 20.0 points per game, as NBA star Kevin Durant watched from the stands.

“You can’t really define the way he plays,’’ ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “He affects the game in so many ways. He does everything well.’’

Including the intangibles.

“We have scouts come in here every day and I tell them, ‘You’re about to see the hardest-working guy out here and he’s going to be the most vocal,’ ” OSU coach Travis Ford said. “I don’t care what day you come. I don’t care if it’s the second practice of the day, or the day after a game, or the day before a game.

“Whatever it may be, he does it the same way every single day I’ve been around the young man. I think that’s uncommon for anybody. I don’t expect to have everybody like that. I hope some of it rubs off and it can become contagious within our program. There aren’t many players who lead and get it like he gets it.’’

The NBA will be there soon enough, probably next season. In the meantime, he’s enjoying life in Stillwater, which included a spot on Saturday’s ESPN “College GameDay” set. He served as the weekly guest picker. For a few seconds, he wasn’t so beloved as he (correctly) selected Oklahoma over Kansas State, drawing temporary boos from his fans.

“I just want to be a normal guy who happens to play basketball,’’ said Smart, who admits he still burns from last year’s first-round NCAA tournament defeat against Oregon, which ended OSU’s 24-9 season. “I’m having fun and I’m happy. To me, that’s what life is all about.’’

jjohnston@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7353

Twitter: @JJohnstonTBO

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