SAN DIEGO -- In a matter of months, it all crumbled. More like the brick exterior of an old church than a cookie. A gradual but obvious decline.
Marcus Smart returned to Oklahoma State to rid his program of the lingering stench that arose in the weeks that followed last season’s opening-round loss to Oregon in the NCAA tournament. He wanted to refine his skills in hopes of securing a lengthier future in the NBA, too.
But Smart had the chance to take a top-three slot in the draft a year ago. He came back to help his teammates -- his brothers -- make a run in March. To pursue a national championship.
And he could see that opportunity evaporating against No. 8 seed Gonzaga on Friday afternoon. But he couldn’t plug the leak.
Seconds later, it was over. And then, Smart walked off the court.
“It’s very difficult,” said Smart, who finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 steals and 1 block. “This team has been through a lot this season, a lot of downs and a lot of ups, and it’s especially difficult for me -- Markel [Brown] being a senior -- words can’t explain it right now.”
It was likely Smart’s last collegiate game, as most expect him to turn pro. He refused to discuss his future in detail after the game, but he suggested that the loss wouldn’t change that plan.
But the game, an 85-77 loss for No. 9 seed Oklahoma State, was also the conclusion of a bizarre season for the program. The Pokes entered the season tied with Syracuse in eighth place in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.
That position seemed solid. With Smart, Brown and Le’Bryan Nash anchoring the team, Oklahoma State had the look of a Big 12 and national title contender.
From there, calamity ensued. Big man Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending injury in late December. In early February, Stevie Clark was dismissed by coach Travis Ford following an arrest. Smart shoved a Texas Tech fan shortly after that and earned a three-game suspension and national scrutiny. Plus, the team endured a seven-game losing streak.
And it was over, it seemed.
But somehow, the Pokes fought back and became just the second team since 1985 to secure an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament after suffering a seven-game losing streak, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that’s notable, considering their challenges.
“In a sense, you could say that because 64 teams make it to this point and to be considered one of those teams is always an accomplishment, to be a part of this tournament,” said Brown, who finished with 20 points. “We fell short of our goals, but it’s always a positive when you get into the NCAA tournament.”
They could not escape their past in San Diego, though. Without Cobbins, the Cowboys were futile in their attempt to contain 7-foot-1 big man Przemek Karnowski (15 points, 10 rebounds). They couldn’t stop Gary Bell Jr. (17 points) or Kevin Pangos (26 points, 12-for-14 from the charity stripe), either.
Smart played 38 minutes even though he picked up four fouls. Nash, the team’s best threat inside, played just 17 minutes due to foul trouble.
The Cowboys weren’t big enough, deep enough or strong enough to stop a Gonzaga squad that shot 9-for-18 beyond the arc. Coach Mark Few’s program is 6-0 now against the Cowboys and will advance to face No. 1 seed Arizona Sunday at Viejas Arena.
The postgame news conference for the Cowboys felt like a funeral. Brown fought off tears from the podium. Phil Forte III buried his head in his hands.
Coaches, team officials and trainers stood along the concrete wall outside the locker room in silence.
But Smart told the press that he had no regrets about returning for his sophomore season. A day earlier, he’d discussed the bond that developed within the team as it endured the drama. And even though Oklahoma State fell short of its dreams, Smart said he was proud of its effort Friday and throughout the season.
“I definitely think I left it all out there,” Smart said. “This team left it all out there.”
And that’s not debatable. Oklahoma State’s determination cannot be questioned.
But the season will end in mystery. The Cowboys left it out there, but how much more would they have left right now if everything had come together instead of fallen apart midway through the season?
We’ll never know because it’s over.