About halfway through the first 20 minutes of last night's game in Stillwater, Marcus Smart suddenly became the second-biggest name in the building.
Because that's when Kevin Durant strolled in and made his way to his seat. Durant took in a watch at Gallagher-Iba Arena, the same spot where he arguably had the best game of his brief college career. Smart put up what was probably the best performance of his career on the same court Tuesday, showing with a personal-best 39 points. Oklahoma State won 101-80 over Memphis and absolutely destroyed the Tigers.
It was a great Tuesday night in college hoops (we're now 2 for 2 in that regard, considering last week's Champions Classic), and it was punctuated by Smart reminding everyone just how good great he is at this level. Damn, that was fun, especially that first half. Smart wasn't entirely brilliant -- he took a hunk of shots he probably didn't need to -- but he was spot-on so often, and really, it's hard to argue against him being in the thick of the top-pick-of-the-draft talk as of now.
College basketball has a lot of star power this year, the most in many years. Perhaps since Durant's time at Texas, or even before.
USA Today's Eric Prisbell was on hand for the game and talked to Durant about Smart afterward. High praise from KD.
"That is a tough shot to make, and that is a gutsy shot to shoot," Durant told USA Today Sports after the game. "But he earned the right to take those shots. Marcus can play in the league right now. Definitely."
"When he scores like that," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said, "he could be the best player in college basketball."
"He was just unbelievable for them tonight," Durant said. "He was doing it all for them, rebounding, blocking shots, passing, scoring. He led them. I knew he could do everything pretty well. But I like his demeanor. I like how he handles his teammates. A player like him, he always can burst out and get 30 or 40 points."
Smart has long looked up to Durant not just because of his rare basketball talents but because, like Smart, Durant leads with his actions rather than his ego. They exude confidence rather than bravado. When Ford told the team before the game that Durant had asked to come to the game, Smart thought his coach was joking. When Smart was finally on the court, he glanced to the first row and saw a figure that looked a lot like the Oklahoma City Thunder star.
"I was like, 'Wait a minute, am I dreaming?' " Smart said.
Smart does indeed remind me of Durant in regard to his demeanor. There was a brief clip shown during the second half last night of Smart talking to Jay Bilas about coming back to school and the NBA and why he did it. I'm paraphrasing here, but Smart essentially said the NBA is about so much more than the glamour. There is a lot of grit and hard work and a lot of stress that comes with that opportunity. He said he's still young, wants to enjoy college and that kind of real-life responsibility can wait just a little longer. Very mature young kid.
And if Durant is giving you an endorsement, it's not a phony one. One of the best players in the NBA watched one of the best players in the college game last night, and you'd have to believe by this time next year, those two will be crossing paths on the pro circuit. It's always great to see real recognize real, especially in the early stages.