Mike Casazza: Freshmen see roles expand for Oklahoma State, WVU
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Eron Harris and Marcus Smart could not have arrived here for their meeting at Iba Gallagher Arena tomorrow under more different circumstances.
They're freshmen in the Big 12, Smart for the Oklahoma State team that plays host to Harris and West Virginia at 1 p.m. on ESPNU. That's about all they would seem to have in common.
Smart was named the Big 12 preseason freshman of the year - and consider the competition for that, with Ben McLemore at Kansas and Isaiah Austin at Baylor. He was a McDonald's All-American and considered one of the best prep players in the country. Twice he was named the Gatorade state player of the year in Texas.
He went to aptly named Marcus High in the Dallas/Fort Worth suburb of Flower Mound and helped the Marauders win back-to-back Class 5A state championships.
"All my life I've been asked to do things that would overwhelm most people," Smart said. "I've gotten used to it. It comes second nature to me now. I'm used to it and I'm ready to take it on and excel. If you would ask someone else that's not used to it, I'm sure it would affect them."
Harris had no such accolades in his background. His Lawrence North High team was, in his words, the most talented in the state when he as a senior. The season was a flop. Harris missed out on being an Indiana All-Star.
Where Smart had to work up the nerve to call Roy Williams to cancel a visit to North Carolina because he was committed to Oklahoma State, Harris chose WVU over schools in the Mid-American, Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley conferences.
He wasn't the best recruit in WVU's class. That honor instead went to Elijah Macon, who needed a year in prep school to get ready to enroll for next season. Harris probably wasn't even held in the same regarded as Terry Henderson, who scored some 3,000 points in his high school career in Raleigh, N.C., and who was starting until a back injury sidelined him last week.
And that is where Harris and Smart's stories begin to merge. Smart remains one of the Big 12's top freshmen and is becoming a very good, 6-foot-4 point guard who was more comfortable scoring then facilitating in high school. He averages 13.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists for the Cowboys (12-5, 2-3 Big 12), but also leads the Big 12 in steals and is in the top 15 in blocked shots, free-throw percentage and assist-turnover ratio.
"Marcus, probably more than any player I've ever coached, affects a practice, affects games more than any player I've seen," Coach Travis Ford said. "He's involved in every play in practice, whether it be a rebound, a loose ball, defensively, making assists. He's involved in everything. He's the ultimate winner."
Harris played point guard in high school, but has transitioned to shooting guard and has blossomed lately. He's started the past two games in Henderson's place and averaged 14.5 points. In the past three games, he's scored 17, 10 and 19 points and upped his scoring average from 5.2 points to 7.4.
He's also No. 4 in the Big 12 in 3-point shooting in conference games (42.5 percent).
"I'm just playing ball now, like I have since I was 3 years old," the 6-2 Harris said. "I'm playing ball, but within the offense. If I see a lane, I'll take it, be strong with the ball, take it to the rim and try to get fouled."
Harris is making 3-pointers at a team-high rate (39.1 percent) but he's making free throws, too, and is 14-for-18 the past three games and shoots 80 percent for the season. In Wednesday's win against TCU, which snapped a three-game losing streak, Harris played a team-high 27 minutes. Teammates say of Harris what Ford said of Smart.
"He's making himself known when he's on the court," guard Jabarie Hinds said. "He's being aggressive, making shots, driving the ball and getting fouled."
These are freshmen, neither the primary option on their team. Smart can defer to last year's freshman phenom, Le'Bryan Nash, who averages 13.9 points per game, or Markel Brown, one of the league's most improved players, who leads the team with 14.4 points per game.
"It's definitely a lot of pressure, but being a good player coming out of high school with all the awards and accolades I won, that's part of my responsibility," Smart said. "It's a lot of responsibility, but not as much because my teammates are great. We've got a lot of great talent."
Harris couldn't defer by choice, though. He was a spare part early who then became a contributor before he was a regular. This was supposed to be a team that leaned on big players and let Hinds and Juwan Staten and Gary Browne handle the ball and Matt Humphrey and Aaron Brown shoot it.
Harris kept rising, and no doubt intrigued Coach Bob Huggins as he made up his mind to play small and start four guards. Even with Henderson out, Huggins went small and played with Harris.
Huggins started an ordinary lineup Wednesday - three guards and two forwards - but Harris was again in the starting five. Later, he was the one the offense was running through as he made hard cuts, caught crisp passes and got points on shots or free throws as the Mountaineers pulled away late.
"My young guy goes 5-for-6 from the floor, 2-for-3 from 3 and 7-for-10 at the line with three rebounds, 19 points, two assists - and he played the most amount of minutes," Huggins said. "I believe you get out of this game what you put into it."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.