But his return Saturday rejuvenated a team that at one point was ranked as high as fifth in the country but had lost its last seven games, the longest losing streak for an OSU men's basketball team since 1973.
Smart, playing for the first time in two weeks, finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, six steals, three rebounds and two blocked shots while playing 35 minutes. But it wasn't a one-man show as the Cowboys point guard had plenty of help from Le'Bryan Nash (21 points and six rebounds), Phil Forte (20 points and two steals), Markel Brown (11 points, six rebounds and five assists), and Kamari Murphy (10 points and six rebounds).
"I think Marcus was the difference. Getting our point guard back, our leader, was exciting," said Nash. "We got the crowd back. Marcus had 10 assists and that helped with him controlling the game. You can just tell he controls the whole game and that's what we need. We need him back and I can say it was an A-plus performance from him."
Cowboys head coach Travis Ford agrees with Nash's assessment of Smart's play.
"Overall, I thought he was terrific. Absolutely terrific," Ford said. "You look at the stat sheet, and that says enough, but that's what we expect him to be — a stat-sheet stuffer — a guy who can fill it up in the rebound column, the points column, the steals column and the assist column. When he has 16 points, 10 assists, six steals, two blocks and three rebounds, that's the kind of performance we need. That's what we've been looking for. I thought everybody played well. I thought Le'Bryan Nash had a whale of a game as well.
"We played well and we played together. We've worked really hard in practice the last three days on playing as a team on both ends of the court. I think we saw a lot of that in many different facets — from the 20 assists, to playing terrific team defense with a lot of deflections and steals. They were things we are capable of doing.
"It was fun to see them playing hard and together. We saw a few guys smiling out there, which we hadn't seen in a while. It was a different feel. However, like I told the guys, this is one game. We know all too well that this is fragile, and we can't exhale. We need to continue to have a sense of urgency and play as a team moving forward. I'm very proud of the effort from our players."
Smart's value to the Cowboys was evident to the Gallagher-Iba Arena crowd of 11, 539 in the final seconds of the first half. Tech had cut OSU's 27-15 lead to just five points before the Cowboys sophomore made the type of plays he was making earlier in the season.
A jumper from in the paint with eight seconds on the clock ended a drought of nearly four minutes in which the Cowboys didn't score a field goal. But what he did after that is why NBA coaches like the Oklahoma City Thunder's Scott Brooks, who was part of Saturday's crowd, are so impressed with Smart.
He intercepted the inbounds pass from Tech's Jordan Tolbert to teammate Randy Onwuasor and banked in a 10-foot jumper with the clock showing three seconds. Instead of Tech taking the momentum into the locker room at halftime, the GIA crowd roared its approval as the Cowboys rushed off the court with a 34-25 lead.
"Great players make those plays," Texas Tech head coach Tubby Smith said. "He's very crafty. He's one of the best thieves, steals guys, in the country. He's pretty deceptive. He's a very intelligent player."
Smart said, "That was a big momentum change for us. It definitely got this crowd into it, which is what we need at home. It kind of took the life out of Texas Tech going into halftime and that's kind of what you want to do. We want to take the momentum early and put the foot on the gas pedal early, and that's what we did."
The Cowboys shot 56.9 percent for the game but after making their first three shots to start the game they missed eight in a row and went more than 10 minutes of the first half – from Smart's steal and layup which led to a conventional three-point play at the 17:56 mark to 7:36 on Brown's steal and layup – without making a field goal.
But over the last 20 minutes, 8 seconds – the final eight seconds of the first half and the entire second half – the Cowboys were 21 of 31 shooting from the field for 67.8 percent.
Smart and the Cowboys put the finishing touches on the 22-point victory in the final few minutes. With the shot clock running down, Smart's slam dunk off a feed from Murphy with 2:19 remaining all but sealed the victory. On the next trip down the floor, Smart appeared to lose control of the ball around the free-throw line as the shot clock was again winding down but he slapped it to a wide open Murphy under the basket for an easy dunk, and for his record-setting 10th assist of the game.
Smart is the first Cowboys player to record a double-double in points and assists since Byron Eaton (15 & 10) did so against Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament on March 22, 2009.
"It was just fun for the first time in a long time," Smart said. "Coach Ford said to us in the locker room that this is one of the first times in a long time that he'd seen everybody smiling. Everybody was out there smiling and having fun. That's what we have to get back to doing. We are just going to work on that every day."
The Cowboys will attempt to make it two in a row for the first time since back-to-back wins over West Virginia and TCU on Jan. 11 and Jan.15.