"I definitely think as an individual, myself, that I have played differently," Smart said. "I'm playing more under control, trying to get my teammates a little more involved than I was at the beginning of the season. We're just playing good ball together."
Smart and the Cowboys face the nearly impossible task of winning four games in four days to earn the Big 12's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. Luckily for Smart, that's probably not necessary, although he's taking nothing for granted, beginning with Wednesday night's first-round game against Texas Tech at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
"We feel like we still have to go do something, regardless of what people say, we're in or we're out. We're not satisfied by no means," said Smart. "We're not content at all. We understand what we have to go do this weekend. Like I said, it's not going to be easy, it's going to be a grind, but we're ready for this grind."
The Cowboys were 16-10 after losing seven games in a row for the first time since 1973 when Smart returned to the lineup Feb. 22 against the Red Raiders. Since then, the OSU point guard has improved his play in nearly every area. Here's a comparison of Smart's numbers in the last five games compared to his season stats (last five games vs. season):
Field goal percentage: 43.9 percent–42.5 percent (improvement of 1.4 percent)
Three-point percentage: 37.5 percent–30.1 percent (improvement of 7.4 percent)
Free-throw percentage: 74.4 percent–73.7 percent (improvement of 0.7 percent)
Scoring: 19.8 point average-17.9 points (improvement of 1.9 points)
Rebounds: 4.8 rebounds–5.6 rebounds (decline of 0.8 rebounds)
Assists: 6.4 assists–4.7 assists (improvement of 1.7 assists)
Steals: 4.4 steals–2.7 steals (improvement of 1.7 steals)
Cowboys head coach Travis Ford is hesitant to say Smart benefitted from sitting out three games but he acknowledges that his point guard is playing some of his best basketball since returning.
"I think he evaluated a lot while he was sitting out. I can't say that if he hadn't sat out we wouldn't have done the same thing. I don't know," said Ford. "But I think he did come back ready to play and he's playing very good basketball right now. Is he playing better than he was prior to that four or five games? Probably yes. I don't know if the suspension got him back (to playing that way) or if he would have got himself back. I don't know.
"He got to sit back and watch the team play. He got to sit back and work on his own game. We got him a ton of individual workouts, and he did a ton on his own. I'm sure it was a great time to reflect on, ‘what makes me the best player? What do I need to do?' From that aspect, I don't think it hurt. I know from his competitive (nature), he would have gotten back to it any way. But I think it gave him great time to reflect."
The Cowboys, 20-11. are the eighth seed entering the tournament. If they defeat the Red Raiders in Wednesday night's first-round game they will advance to face the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in Thursday's quarterfinals.
Ford said Monday that he expects the Big 12 to get seven and possibly eight teams into the NCAA tourney, including his own Cowboys. And he believes any number of teams could win this week's Big 12 tournament.
"There are a lot of good teams in this league," the OSU head coach said. "There's a reason we are ranked number one in America as far as the Big 12 is concerned. There are a lot of teams that could win it."
Smart agrees with his head coach but says that one team stands above all others.
"We've got some great teams, great coaches, great players in this league," Smart said. "Everybody knows that Kansas is a powerhouse. No matter what people say, no matter what other teams do, it goes through Kansas. They have a great team and coach (Bill) Self is a great coach. They've got a lot of great players. Congratulations to them."
Smart was outstanding when OSU upset the then No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks 72-65 on March 1 at Gallagher-Iba Arena. He scored 20 of his 21 points in the second half in a victory that many believe secured the Cowboys a place in the NCAA tourney.
Ford is pleased with what he's seen from not only Smart but his entire team the last three weeks.
"Right now we're playing well. The last five games we've played good basketball. I think we're doing a lot of things well, a lot of things better now than we were doing a month and a half ago, that's for sure. Hopefully we can continue to do it," he said.