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January 11, 2013

The Boys from Flower Mound got game

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An assertion: There isn't a more telling statistic than the charge.

Count how many times you see a player take a hard shot to his chest at 2 p.m. in Saturday's game at Lloyd Noble Center. It's a good bet the team that takes the most will win the game.

The charge doesn't show up on the stat sheet like its cousin, the rebound. It's not glamorous, and it's not going to earn anybody a shoe deal with Nike, Adidas or Jordan.

The charge is a coach's statistic. It takes sand to take a charge.

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It takes force of will to take a charge. It takes a player more committed to winning than to scoring, than to dropping dimes, than to posting a dunk on YouTube.

Duncanville High School boys' basketball coach Danny Henderson might say it takes a player like Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. As the then-coach of Flower Mound Marcus High School boys' basketball team, Henderson watched Smart lead the Marauders to a 39-1 season and the Texas Class 5A state title against then-No. 1 Lakeview Centennial as a junior.

Smart was named the game's MVP, and his stat line in that game is impressive:16 points, 11 boards, four steals. But the stat that still has Henderson aghast is the number of charges Smart took: five.

"Marcus takes five charges in that game," Henderson said. "That's not an exaggeration. That's five called charges. How do you put a price on that?"

HUSTLE MAN

That's the kind of player the Sooners have to stop. OU men's basketball Lon Kruger acknowledged Smart is an outstanding player a focal point of the Sooners' defensive scheme.

"He's got great feel for the game," Kruger said. "Great feel for making winning plays at critical times in ball games. He makes his teammates better. Just a great all-around player."

CBSSports.com ranks Smart as the 18th-best 2013 NBA draft eligible player in the country and third-best prospect among point guards. Before he reached college, Smart won a gold medal for Team USA by leading the U18 national team to a FIBA Americas world title last summer.

He broke NBA All-Star Andre Iguodala's 10-year-old record for steals in the five-game tournament (18) and Grant Hill's record for steals per game (3.6). Smart also became one of just four players, including Kyrie Irvin, Jonny Flynn and Kemba Walker, to drop at least 20 dimes in the tournament.

The aforementioned accolades almost diminish Smart's being twice selected as Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Texas and starring for the West in the 2012 McDonald's All-American game. With him at the helm, Flower Mound Marcus won 115 games and lost just six.

Henderson said he doesn't know what to look for in an NBA-caliber player, having never coached a player at that level. But he's sure of this:

"Whatever team (Smart) goes to, whatever drill they're doing, he's going to win that drill," Henderson said. "He's gonna whip the guy in front of him. That's just who he is and how he works."

Henderson is responsible for one of the country's best point guards even receiving an opportunity to play the position. He moved Smart from the low post to floor general as a sophomore and cultivated the ability of one of the best players in the country. After watching Smart play just a few times, Henderson quickly realized what kind of basketball player he had on his team.

"I wanted the ball in his hands all the time for obvious reasons," Henderson said. "Well, obvious now. Just immediately you knew he had a lot of potential."

Smart, who played with OSU freshman 2-guard Phil Forte at Flower Mound Marcus, never lacked effort at practice. Never lacked leadership skills. Never lacked hustle.

He was always willing to do the dirty work for the Marauders. Chasing down loose balls was a specialty, and harassing ball handlers was a delight.

"Marcus Smart is the ultimate intangibles player," Henderson said. "You just cannot put a price on what it does for your team and your program when your best player is your hardest worker every minute of every drill he practices."

It's not Smart's scoring that is most likely to hurt Oklahoma. Against the last two ranked opponents the Pokes faced Smart averaged 24 points, but OSU lost both of those games.

No, when Smart is at his best he's not just scoring. He's facilitating. He's rebounding. He's making the most of every play for every player on his team, and that's the way OSU coach Travis Ford seems to like it.

Ford has given Smart, a true freshman, the keys to the offense and, by God, Smart's running it.

But he isn't just the best player on the Pokes' team, he'd be the best player on Oklahoma's team, too. He averages more points per game (14.3), assists per game (4.8), steals per game (2.8) and blocked shots per game (1.1) than any Sooner.

Senior forward Romero Osby, OU's best post player, averages just 0.7 rebounds more per game than Smart who averages 5.7 boards per game.

"He's a good player," Osby said. "He plays hard, and he's attacking all the time, so we just gotta be in help-side defense and whoever is guarding him on the ball has to do his best to fight him."

Smart's weaknesses as college player are his ability to shoot the 3-pointer and free throws. This season he's shooting just 29.5 percent from beyond the arc and just 79 percent from the charity stripe.

He doesn't need to make 3s though. That's what Forte is for.

600 3-POINTERS EVERY DAY

As prep guard, Forte crippled the Marauders' 8000 Gun, a machine used to automatically rebound and pass shots to its shooter.

"He broke the first one," Henderson said. "He wore it out. We had to buy another one."

Forte became famous for his work ethic and individual practice regimen in addition to team practices.

"Phil has a regimen where he makes 600 3s a day," Henderson said. "Not shoots, but makes 600 3s a day."

Perhaps that's the reason Forte is deadly with his feet pointed toward the basket and his arms cocked to fire. He ranks fifth in the Big 12 in 3-point shooting, and is more than capable of lighting up the scoreboard if he's within 25 feet of the basket.

Throw in dynamic 6-foot-7, 220-pound Le'Bryan Nash, and it becomes much more facile to see why the Cowboys present more than a threat to beat Oklahoma. They present a challenge to win the Big 12 title.

But this also is a statement game for OU.

"Every game is a statement game," senior 2-guard Steven Pledger said. "Every game is the most important game of the season at that point, so we're just trying to come out here and get the win.'



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