SAN DIEGO (AP) - This is a big reason why Marcus Smart passed up the NBA draft and returned for his sophomore season at Oklahoma State.
The NCAA tournament is here, and the ninth-seeded Cowboys (21-12) will face eighth-seeded Gonzaga (28-6) on Friday, with both teams hoping to erase bad memories of earlier-than-expected exits last March.
For Smart, it's the final chapter of his college career. He said he doesn't regret bucking the one-and-done trend in college basketball and returning to school. He said he learned from his three-game suspension for shoving a Texas Tech fan.
''This team has made my decision to come back well worth my while,'' Smart said Thursday. ''These are a group of guys that I've got a bond with that will never be broken.
''We're going to go out there and have fun and play basketball,'' he said.
During a light practice at San Diego State's Viejas Arena, the Cowboys took half-court shots and then, led by Smart, went over to the stands and greeted Oklahoma State fans, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
Back in mid-February, the guard-dominated Cowboys were in danger of missing the NCAA tournament. They lost all three games during Smart's suspension to run their losing streak to seven straight, dropping to 16-10.
When Smart returned, the preseason All-America guard had 16 points, 10 assists and six steals to lead the Cowboys to an 84-62 home win against Texas Tech. That started a four-game winning streak, and they are 5-2 since he returned.
''I think the situation made him stronger as a person,'' fellow guard Markel Brown said. ''I feel like he handled it in the best way possible. He apologized for his actions and he bounced back, like no other athlete can. He's improved daily on and off the court and he's a great person to be around.''
Smart averages 17.8 points while Brown, a senior, averages 17.1.
One of the reasons Smart came back is because the Cowboys were upset by Oregon in last year's NCAA tournament.
He and the Cowboys would like to make a run this year.
''I'm ecstatic about it,'' Smart said. ''It's every college student-athlete's dream to make it to the NCAA tournament, just try to make a run and give yourself an opportunity. That's what we have here.''
The winner will play the winner of the game between top-seeded Arizona and 16th-seeded Weber State.
Gonzaga isn't in the spotlight it was in last season, when it was ranked No. 1 in the country and seeded No. 1 in the West region. The Zags beat Southern before being stunned 76-70 by No. 9 seed Wichita State, which went on to the Final Four.
''Last year we were being talked about like Wichita State is this year,'' guard Kevin Pangos said. ''People were criticizing us and praising us, and there was a lot of talk. This year we're floating under the radar, which is fine by us - No. 8 seed, nothing guaranteed, and we're just trying to take care of business. We learned last year that at this time anything is possible, but it is a little bit of a different feeling.''
Here are five things to watch when Oklahoma State plays Gonzaga:
MARCH MAVENS: Gonzaga is in the NCAA tournament for the 16th straight year and the 17th time in school history. The Bulldogs have won at least one game in each of their last five appearances. They last advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 2006. The Zags' lone appearance in the Elite Eight was in 1999, when their current streak of NCAA appearances began.
THE REMATCH: Gonzaga beat Oklahoma State 69-68 on Dec. 31, 2012, at Stillwater to run its overall record against the Cowboys to 5-0. Smart and Pangos each scored 23 points.
ADVANTAGE, ZAGS: Gonzaga will have a height advantage over the Cowboys, with 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski and 6-9 forward Sam Dower Jr. Oklahoma State's tallest starters are 6-8 post Kamari Murphy and 6-7 wing Le'Bryan Nash. ''It's definitely a strength,'' Dower said. ''I would say our focus is our defense.''
COWBOYS ROLLING: Oklahoma State has won five of its last seven games, a run that coincided with the return of Smart on Feb. 22. ''We came together as a team,'' Brown said. ''We put all of our egos aside and we came together as one.'' OSU's two losses in that span were both in overtime, 77-70 to Kansas in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals and 85-81 at Iowa State on March 8.
OVERLOOKED?: Gonzaga guard David Stockton - John's kid - notes that Oklahoma State was a Top 10 team earlier this season and calls Smart ''an electric player. ... Obviously we're going to get overlooked a little bit and that's how we started, that's how Gonzaga started, and it's fine with us,'' Stockton said.
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