Marcus Smart returns to state as better player

So much can happen to a high school athlete in just a year’s time.

Flower Mound Marcus basketball standout Marcus Smart headed into the 2011 boys state tournament dealing with all of the attention being one of the nation's top recruits entailed.

He also had just received closure in an off-the-court investigation into the motives of his transfer to Marcus – which, of course, was ruled in his favor.

Smart, with a hand from his teammates, overcame these distractions in Marcus’ 40-38 win over Garland Lakeview Centennial in the Class 5A championship game. He notched a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds and was named the title game MVP.

Since then, Smart committed to Oklahoma State and earned a selection for the prestigious McDonald's All-America game. And now, Smart and the Marauders have the chance to repeat as state champions minus all the distractions on the periphery.

“He’s always been mature beyond his years,” Marcus coach Danny Henderson said. “He’s an even better player this year than last year because of his work ethic.”

Marcus returns four of its five starters from last year’s championship game, three of which signed D1 scholarships in the offseason. Forte will join Smart at Oklahoma State, while Nick Banyard will head to New Mexico.

However, there is a legitimate case in saying Marcus would not be back in Austin for the third straight year if it weren’t for Smart.

In this year's regional final against South Grand Prairie, Smart stepped up and blocked Jovan Austin’s bid for a 3-pointer as time expired to preserve Marcus' 39-38 win, punching the ticket to Austin.

“He loves to compete more than anyone I’ve ever known in my life,” Henderson said “He lives for this stuff.”

While Smart leads the charge on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, it’s evident by his actions on and off the court that he actually lives for his teammates – who make up quite a supporting cast.

Smart’s point guard and best friend Phil Forte actually leads the team scoring with almost 15 points a game and can be a sniper from 3-point range.

Banyard can spark the Marauders with a big 3 or by jamming down an alley-oop off a back-door cut and can create offense by being another big body in the post, gathering in rebounds.

Guard A.J. Luckey has flown under the radar, overshadowed by Marcus’ big three, but has taken games on his shoulders this season by driving to the lane and finishing acrobatic layups.

At this weekend's state tournament, the Marauders will have to deal with targets on their back and high expectations as the defending champions.

To counter this throughout the year, Henderson instilled a plan into his team that would make Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett proud – taking everything one day at a time.

“Because of those expectations, we took a minefield mentality,” Henderson said. “As you walk into a minefield, trying to get to the top of a hill, you don’t dare look up at the third and fourth step up in front of you. You just look at the next step and that’s all we focus on.”

The first obstacle in Marcus’ two-step to state comes Friday night against Garland Naaman Forest. The Rangers flew under the radar through the regular season but peaked when it counted in the playoffs, making them one of the hottest teams headed to Austin.

“They are similar to Connecticut in the way they rolled through the playoffs,” Henderson said, referring to last year's NCAA champion. “That’s what UConn did last year and that’s what these guys did and, quite frankly, that’s all that matters. Naaman Forest may be playing the best out of [all the 5A state tournament teams] right now.”

With this weekend’s trip to Austin being Marcus’ third in as many years, Henderson isn’t worried that his team will be caught up in the mystique of the event. But that doesn't make it any less special for the coach.

“There’s great coaches sitting in that audience that never get the opportunity to coach in Austin,” Henderson said. “It’s a humbling experience because I’ve been so fortunate and so blessed.”