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Cowboys At Heart: Trio's Decision To Return Sets Up Something Special

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STILLWATER, Oklahoma -

The tempered enthusiasm was easily recognizable at Oklahoma State University early Wednesday afternoon.

There was an electric vibe building throughout the growing crowd in the Student Union atrium, elated by the possibilities but terrified of the unknown that would unfold in the next few minutes.

Then one by one, the Cowboys' "Big Three" stepped up to the podium.

First, Le'Bryan Nash: "This is one of the hardest decisions of my life. I've decided to come back for my junior year."

The crowd erupted and a sigh of relief crept throughout Cowboy nation as the first domino had fallen in the "good news" category fans had been hoping for.

Secondly, Markel Brown took the microphone and tried – albeit unconvincingly – to make it sound like he was going to declare for the NBA Draft. Then he jokingly asked the crowd what he should do before shifting into a more serious tone saying, "I've had the time to talk to my family, and it's time for me to keep building on this legacy here at Oklahoma State; let's do it again next year."

Again, the crowd burst into cheers. And there was no time wasted as the man of the hour took center stage – Marcus Smart.

The 19-year-old phenom's list of accolades is extensive but highlighted by: Big 12 Player of the Year, Big 12 Freshman of the Year, National Freshman of the Year, unanimous All-Big 12 selection, unanimous All-America selection, Wooden Award finalist, and the list goes on and on.

Add in the fact Smart is a projected top-five pick in June's Draft and predicted by some to go as high as No. 1 overall, and he is a sure-fire prospect who is guaranteed millions of dollars.

Most said he had nothing left to prove and even less to gain by coming back. But those people aren't Marcus Smart.

After weeks of wrestling with a decision, Smart followed the one thing he knew he could trust – his heart.

"It was a hard decision to make. I love you guys; I'm a Cowboy at heart," he said. "Looks like I'm coming back for my sophomore year."

"I just followed my heart. This is where it's at."

His announcement was the final straw, sending the overflow gathering of fans into near pandemonium. His decision alone moved the Cowboys from a borderline top 25 preseason team potentially into the top five.

RELATED: OSU's Smart, Brown and Nash Returning

With all three returning, OSU will feature the No. 1,2 and 3 returning scorers in the Big 12 next season and look like a heavy favorite to end Kansas' nine-year run atop the conference.

And for the first time in nearly a decade, the Cowboys will be included in the short list of national title contenders.

While Smart's decision in particular is a popular one around Cowboy country, it will be questioned elsewhere and he knows it.

Smart said he is more than aware of the critiquing that is sure to come from his unexpected choice to bypass approximately $8 million in guaranteed NBA money to stay with his friends in Payne County.

"I understand that I'll be bashed and criticized for my decision to come back and that the NBA opportunity is there and I should have took it," Smart said. "This year's draft is much weaker than next year's, but I think I made the right decision. And all those people that said that don't have confidence in my ability and in my game to compete with those players next year; you guys have given me that confidence, so I chose to stay here.

"I'm aware of how much money I am giving up; I am aware of that."

Smart is aware of it and so is everyone else, making his decision all the more remarkable. Especially considering OSU's terrific trio all decided to bypass the draft in a year virtually nobody else did. Because of the perceived weaknesses in this year's class, even borderline prospects have thrown their hats in the ring.

But not these young guns; they went against the grain.

RELATED: 4/16 - OSU's Smart Returning

Now the upcoming basketball season can't come soon enough. It's likely student ticket lines outside of Gallagher this coming year will resemble the fall of 2004 when students camped out for days on the heels of the Pokes' run to the Final Four.

Coach Travis Ford made a point of thanking the students who showed up on Wednesday for "bring the rowdy back," but next season is sure to reach a fever pitch Cowboy diehards have longed to see return to GIA.

"This is something you don't just get every day," Ford said. "This is not something you get in life all the time, the opportunity to be a part of a team as close as this that has as much fun as these guys have. It played a big role in a lot of their decisions.

"This is incredible."

Good luck finding an OSU fan who disagrees with that assessment; this trio chose friendship instead of money. They chose Oklahoma State over the NBA.

Smart said this team has "unfinished business" after a surprising opening-round exit against Oregon in the NCAA Tournament.

And with the 2014 Final Four conveniently located in Dallas – Smart and Nash's hometown – the script seems to already be writing itself.

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