KANSAS CITY, Mo. — No player, coach or team arrived at this week’s Big 12 conference men’s basketball tournament with more to prove in the Sprint Center than Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart.A preseason cover boy for multiple national magazines, Smart began the season as a returning All-American, a sure-fire lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and a guy expected to carry his team deep into this year’s NCAA Tournament. In a perfect world, the final scenes of his college career would play out in the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, just a short drive from Smart’s home in Flower Mound.They still might. But only if Smart continues doing the type of rehabilitation work he did in Wednesday’s 80-62 victory over Texas Tech to both his battered image and the Cowboys’ tenuous tournament hopes.Smart, the most talented player in the Big 12, is capable of repairing both with a strong March surge. He took a first step in that direction by striking for 18 points, making six steals, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out seven assists while helping OSU (21-11) avoid a one-and-done effort in Kansas City that could have been fatal to the NCAA hopes of a team that finished 8-10 in league play.Instead, the Smart-led Cowboys seized some momentum and advanced to Thursday’s matchup against No. 10 Kansas, the Big 12 regular-season champ. After spotting the Red Raiders an 8-0 lead, the Cowboys turned the momentum by forcing 14 first-half turnovers that led to 22 points. OSU outscored Tech 46-15 in the final 16:58, with Smart chipping in 10 points, making five steals and distributing four assists in that surge.“We’ve had a lot of downfall this year. But you know everything happens for a reason,” Smart said, citing the Cowboys’ collective struggles as a bonding agent for a team headed in the right direction. “It was a big learning point for this basketball team. It tested our character. And we came out and responded in a way we expected to respond. We jelled together.“When your backs are against the wall, the only thing you can do is lean on your teammates. And that’s what we did. We started jelling at the right time.”The victory sets up Thursday’s pivotal matchup against the Jayhawks (23-8), who will not have 7-foot center Joel Embiid, the Big 12 defensive player of the year, because of a back injury. That glaring absence in the middle should allow Smart to drive and dish, much as he did during a 72-65 upset of KU on March 1. Smart’s 21 points in that triumph helped secure OSU’s first signature win since their season went sideways during a seven-game losing streak that overlapped Smart’s three-game suspension for pushing a heckler during a Feb. 8 loss in Lubbock.Ever since, the Cowboys have been cleaning up the public-relations mess Smart created by shoving Tech fan Jeff Orr. They have been attempting to dig out from under the damage done by their seven-game losing streak — the team’s longest in 41 years — for longer than that.Smart, despite his many attributes, has been only a 30 percent shooter from the perimeter this season. That shortcoming, along with a season-ending injury to center/defensive dynamo Michael Cobbins, has been instrumental in OSU’s struggles in close games.These Cowboys ride the NCAA bubble because of three overtime losses, as well as four other setbacks by four points or less, in Big 12 play. Flip that 0-7 mark to 3-4 and OSU would be sitting on a 24-8 record and a guaranteed NCAA berth right now.But that’s not the case. Smart’s errant jump shot, baseline shove in Lubbock and other on-court antics (kicked chair against West Virginia, multiple defensive flops) have taken a toll on this team and its star player. Smart, considered a class act by rival coaches, has become a target of scorn for opposing fans.But with each postseason triumph, he can regain a little more of the good guy/great player image he enjoyed while carrying the Cowboys to last year’s 24-9 record and leading Team USA to a gold medal at last summer’s Under-19 World Championships in Prague. With each victory since Smart’s return from his suspension, OSU has looked sharper, more focused and more like a team capable of making a meaningful run in the NCAA Tournament … as long as it gets there.OSU guard Markel Brown, who had a team-high 20 points against Tech, pointed to Smart as a key factor in getting things turned back in the right direction before the season slipped away.“Marcus, he knows how to fight through difficult situations,” Brown said. “We’ve come together as a team and we’re moving forward.”Heading into Thursday’s game against Kansas, the Cowboys are 5-1 since Smart returned to the lineup. And the Cowboys plan to keep the roll going by taking down another top-10 team to spruce up their NCAA credentials.“We are playing good right now. But our best basketball is still to come,” Brown said. “We still have some small mistakes we need to fix. But I think our best basketball is still ahead of us.”Asked if he agreed, Smart responded: “Definitely.”These Cowboys, as well as their star player, understand they still have some rehab work left to finish in Kansas City.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch