Two of Big 12's Best Set to Square Off

West Virginia point guard Juwan Staten and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart ended the 2012-13 season in extremely different fashion last March.

Smart's season was over follow a loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Oregon, a game that many expected to be his final game at Oklahoma State.

For Staten, it ended with a first-round exit in the Big 12 Conference tournament to Texas Tech that capped a 13-19 season that he and the rest of his Mountaineer teammates would like to forget.

More than a month after the season ended, Smart made the decision that he would put off the NBA for at least one more season and would return to Stillwater for his sophomore season - fueled by that early loss to Oregon. It was a decision that instantly made the Cowboys one of the Big 12 favorites as this season inched closer and closer.

"He enjoys playing at Oklahoma State. He enjoys his teammates, he enjoys all of that," said Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford. "I kind of thought that's the way he was feeling, just knowing Marcus Smart."

And it wasn't just the people around the Oklahoma State program that were impressed with Smart's play a year ago. You can count West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins as one of those in that group. When Smart and the Cowboys took down the Mountaineers twice last year, the veteran head coach saw a type of player he hadn't seen in nearly 20 years.

"I thought he was absolutely terrific," Huggins said. "I don't know that we've played against a guy that controls the game from the point guard position like he does since I was at Cincinnati and we played against Jason Kidd."

But what made Ford even happier with his point guard's decision to return to school was the manner with which he did it. When Smart announced he was going to play his sophomore season with the Cowboys, it came after weeks of daily decisions between Smart, his parents and Ford weighing the pros and cons of each choice he had in the matter.

In the end, he believed it would be best to stick around for another season.

"There were days he would come in and he would say, 'Coach, I'm leaning on wanting to stay,' and I would play devil's advocate and say, 'I don't know if you want to do that,'" Ford said at Big 12 Media Days this year. "His mom and dad were telling him, 'Hey, you're only a kid once. You need to make your own decision.'

"When he finally made his decision and told me, I was so excited for him because he made the decision, and that's - in today's day and age for an 18-, 19-year-old in his position - very rarely do they get to make their own decision. Someone is telling them what to do and they feel pulled in a certain direction."

Oklahoma State comes into Saturday's showdown in Morgantown at 13-2, with its losses coming to Memphis and Kansas State, and picked up an 87-74 win against Texas Wednesday night.

With Smart leading the way as the team's leader, doing just about anything and filling the stat sheet on a nightly basis, Ford feels he has the perfect leader for his team.

"We've got a great leader, a guy that we can count on every single day, doing it the same way," he said. "And yes, he's a good basketball player and all that, but his leadership is tremendous. It's a joy to coach a guy like that every single day."

* * * * *

This season has been about unfinished business for Staten.

Like Smart, Staten had a bitter taste in his mouth after his first season playing for the Mountaineers (after sitting a year following his transfer from Dayton) went nowhere near the way he had hoped. Staten averaged a shade better than seven points and three assists per game and started 21 of WVU's 31 games.

He wanted to be the leader his team needed, but just wasn't able to perform up to those standards - and it frustrated the Dayton, Ohio, native.

"It's always tough when you have to look yourself in the mirror, but if you want to get better, that's what you have to do. I had to look in the mirror and realize what I didn't do, what I didn't bring to the table or what I could have done better," Staten said earlier this season.

"My whole life, since I've been playing, I've always been recognized as a kind of leader and for the coaches to say we didn't have any leadership, that really struck home for me."

That's what Staten set out to do. He didn't want a lack of leadership to be a reason this team struggled to succeed. So he went to Huggins' house, asking if he could go back and take a look at some of the most successful point guards he's had in his more than 30 years in the coaching business.

Huggins gave him tape of former Cincinnati floor generals Nick Van Exel and Steve Logan - both talented point guards who were able to take games over with their ability to score but also thrived at being a game manager and getting others involved.

"The biggest thing that happened (in the offseason) is he put both foot in and he studied," Huggins said. "When you get a guy that asks if he can come over and watch film of Van Exel and Logan and wants to take film home so he can watch it, that's a pretty good sign that they've bought in. Those two are pretty good guys to watch."

That's exactly what Staten has done, and it's paid dividends so far. The junior point guard is currently the only player in the country - joined by Iowa State point guard DeAndre Kane - who averages 16 points, six rebounds and six assists per game.

"It's night and day, but he's worked at it," Huggins said. "He's pretty much been doing it all year. He's playing with a lot of confidence and his understanding of what I want him to do is very very good. He's playing at a high level right now."

This is the way he felt he needed to play in order for West Virginia to make it back to the NCAA tournament, especially with such a young roster.

"I feel like I'm a veteran on this team. We have a lot of new players. We don't have any seniors, so it's going to take someone to take the lead," Staten said. "The coaches have a lot of respect for me, my teammates have a lot of respect for me and they put a lot of weight on my shoulders, but I embrace it and I just go out there and try to do anything I can to help the team win."

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