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Matt Vautour: Travis Ford under fire for Marcus Smart incident



Monday, March 10, 2014
When all the hand-ringing and outrage is over, what will be the lasting fallout of Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart’s ugly fan pushing incident?

Smart’s altercation with Texas Tech super fan/heckler Jeff Orr has started a discussion about athlete restraint and fan decorum and that’s not a bad thing, but sadly, anyone who honestly believes that fans are going to stop heckling players and referees at any age hasn’t been to a game recently.

Could it cost Smart a spot or two in the NBA Draft? That’s a popular question, but it’s hard to imagine. Talent wins in the NBA. Sure, there are locker room cancers that are good to avoid, but Smart isn’t anywhere near DeMarcus Cousins. He’ll be a lottery pick and a rich man at this point next year.

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Could it cost Oklahoma State a spot in the NCAA tournament? That’s the very real risk. Even if Smart had turned around and walked away from Orr, the Cowboys were starting to slip with four straight losses.

Now, Smart is going to miss games at No. 19 Texas, at home against Oklahoma and at Baylor. Losing all three isn’t far-fetched. Even if they lost two, they’d be 17-9 overall, 5-8 in the Big 12, with tough games to follow. They’d likely need to knock off Kansas and/or Iowa State, or make a run in the Big 12 tournament to assure themselves a spot in the NCAA field.

If they miss the NCAA tournament, is coach Travis Ford in trouble? That would have seemed inconceivable even a month ago.

ESPN’s Dana O’Neil and the Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy wrote columns pointing the finger neither at Smart nor at Orr, the middle-aged Texas Tech fan whose idea of a good time was to drive six hours across Texas from his home in Waco to Lubbock, so he could insult 19-year-olds. In both of the writers’ views, Ford failed for not publicly reprimanding Smart, for not sending him to the locker room after the incident and instead allowing him to continue to argue with the referee following the technical foul.

While there are most likely administrators and boosters who’ll agree with the two columnists, Ford’s handling of the incident isn’t what spells danger for the former UMass coach.

He had a team that was ranked in the top 10 in the preseason and many people thought the Cowboys had a good shot at the Final Four. Instead, they’ve kicked off one player and now Smart, who entered the season portrayed as everything that’s good about college basketball, was suspended three games for an ugly incident.

Making the NCAA tournament would make all of this a footnote in a topsy-turvy season. But if OSU’s name isn’t called on Selection Sunday, people are going to be looking for someone to blame. This is a school that expects to be in the Final Four at least once every five or six years or so and pays Ford accordingly. His $2.3 million per season salary (according to Business Insider) is more than Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Michigan’s John Beilein and almost every other coach in college basketball.

That kind of cash demands results.

ATLANTIC 10 COACHES WEIGH IN — The Smart incident was a popular topic on the Atlantic 10 conference call.

University of Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg said he’d use the situation to remind his players to be prepared to hear nasty comments from fans and to be prepared to walk away.

“It’s something we’ll at least address,” Kellogg said. “We’ll need to at least make sure guys understand how they need to carry themselves. It’s a tough situation for Marcus Smart because nobody wants to be defined by one instance. Everything I’ve heard about him is that he’s a really, really good kid. One instance can tarnish that and I want to make sure our guys understand that. Don’t put yourself in those situations no matter what somebody says.”

Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart (no relation) coached Marcus Smart through USA Basketball each of the past two summers.

“I believe the NCAA, the schools and the individual conferences have a responsibility to protect student athletes. I don’t think that’s happening right now. Buying a ticket right now, fans believe they can say whatever they want. ... Each school has some type of generic pronouncement about not tolerating sexist, racist, homophobic comments or unsportsmanlike conduct. But right now, exactly the opposite is happening. It is being tolerated. Those types of comments are being tolerated. This is the only situation in life a 40-something-year-old man would be able to make comments like this to an 19-year-old kid,” Shaka Smart said. “Right now the NCAA, the conferences and the individual schools need to step up and do something about that. I don’t usually get up on a soap box, but I feel pretty strongly about this.

“I coached Marcus Smart for two summers in USA basketball. He’s a terrific kid. I feel bad that he was put in that situation,” he continued. “He should have handled it differently. But it’s a situation I hate to see student athletes get put in.”

Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli had similar sentiments.

“This is really a shame and an indication of how much pressure is on these young guys. It’s not just the print and the electronic, but the social media has really gotten out of control. I think it’s a real societal problem,” Martelli said. “No matter what the gentleman said, it’s not excusing Marcus Smart. He was wrong. He should pay a penalty, but people now can say whatever they want. It happened to be at a basketball game, but we all know the same thing happens in parking lots and food lines and we’ve lost our way. Common decency is no longer part of how we communicate with each other. We have to get back to the point where there’s some civility with how we have conversations with each other. ... We’re all victims of these moments of insanity that have to stop.”

MY TOP 10 — 1. Syracuse, 2. Arizona, 3. San Diego State, 4. Wichita State, 5. Florida, 6. Villanova, 7. Kansas, 8. Duke, 9. Iowa State, 10. Michigan State.

For the rest of my Top 25 visit the College Hoop Week Guide on GazetteNET.com’s UMass Sports Blog.

GAMES OF THE WEEK: No. 1 Syracuse at No. 25 Pitt, Wednesday 7 p.m., ESPN — Here’s the thing. Pitt shouldn’t be ranked. The Panthers haven’t beaten anyone of substance all year. Their best win is probably Stanford. But Syracuse always struggles in the Steel City, so who knows?

No. 8 Duke at North Carolina, Wednesday 9 p.m., ESPN — It’s Duke and Carolina. It’s must-see every year.

No. 3 Florida at No. 14 Kentucky, Saturday 9 p.m., ESPN — Preview of the SEC title game?

ATLANTIC 10 GAME OF THE WEEK: VCU at Saint Louis, Saturday 2 p.m., ESPN2 — This is not only the ultimate contrast in styles, but an opportunity for VCU to show it can beat a good team on the road.

STILL LEGENDARY ... When Merrimack hockey coach Mark Dennehy walked into the Mullins Center green room earlier this month, he looked around the room and chuckled. “I can’t come into this room and not think about John Chaney,” he said.

It’s hard to believe Thursday is the 20th anniversary of the ol’ Temple coach threatening to kill John Calipari in that very room.

Information from personal interviews, newspaper articles and sports information releases was used in this report.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed.