Marcus Smart, USA U18s Depart For FIBA Americas Championship
Colorado Springs, Colo. • June 12, 2012
Six-foot-three-inch guard Marcus Smart (Marcus High School/Flower Mound, Texas) and his teammates on the 2012 USA Basketball Men's U18 National Team have their bags packed, and they are ready to go. After 12 practices in seven days at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Colorado Springs, Colo., the USA is headed to Sao Sebastiao do Paraiso, Brazil, for the 2012 FIBA Americas U18 Championship.
"This is my first time being out of the country ever, so I definitely can't wait to get there and see it and start competing," Smart said. "There are a couple of us who haven't traveled much. We just can't wait to get out of Colorado and get to Brazil. It's a big deal for us. I'm packed up. We sent a bag home with the stuff that we didn't need, and we packed everything else up. I'm ready to put it on the plane and go."
Training camp began June 5 with 23 of the nation's top 18-and-under athletes, and the group was reduced to 14 finalists on Thursday night (June 7). The official 12-member roster was named by the USA Basketball Men's Junior National Team Committee on Saturday night (June 9).
"The process has sort of been an emotional roller coaster because we had final cuts to be made," Smart admitted. "We were still competing for a spot. To know that we got our spots and locked them in, it was a very big relief. It's intense, but it's all about mental toughness. You just have to focus and block out the distractions.
"There really was no pressure on me. I wanted to just come out here and have fun because either way this is a great experience and a very prestigous event to be a part of. I thank God that he gave me an opportunity to be here."
Smart earned his invitation from USA Basketball following a stellar career at Marcus High School in Texas. He won back-to-back 5A state championships, helped his team to a 114-6 record over three seasons and was named the Gatorade Texas Player of the Year in 2011 and 2012.
"We went down in history as one of only two or three teams that won back-to-back titles in the states of Texas," Smart said of his high school team, which is located in a suburb of the Dallas-Fort Worth region. "For us to be a part of that was incredible. Not many people can say they have one state title, let alone two rings."
Averaging 15.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.8 steals per game as a senior in 2011-12, Smart said he was satisfied with his final prep season.
"I had been with that group of guys for a long time," Smart said of his senior year. "I did what I had to do. I got a scholarship. I worked hard and got a second state ring, and the brotherhood I had with the players from my high school will never be forgotten. The brotherhood that I will have with the players at OSU (Oklahoma State University), the brotherhood that I have with this U.S. team here, those will never be forgotten. I will always remember these guys."
Clearly, Smart has made lasting friendships while playing basketball. Occasionally, players on the U.S. team may run into each other during the high school season, and many see each other while playing basketball in the summer at tournaments and camps. Three players, Smart, Rasheed Sulaimon and Rodney Purvis, played together in the McDonald's All-American Game.
"That was probably the highest level I had ever played at," Smart said of the all-star game. "But nothing is like this. These are all great players, even the ones who got cut, otherwise they wouldn't have been here. And these are great coaches. So, you need to come out here and learn from these coaches and learning from them has been incredible.
"I kind of have gotten a taste of what college will be like. Coming in as a freshman, I haven't been (to Oklahoma State) to work out yet because I've been doing this, but I kind of have a taste. They are keeping it real with everybody, and college practices aren't what practices were like in high school. It isn't fun and games."
"They" are USA head coach Billy Donovan (University of Florida) and assistant coaches Mark Few (Gonzaga University) and Shaka Smart (Virginia Commonwealth University), and a couple of scrimmages is all the playing experience the USA will take with it to Brazil. When the U18 national team scrimmaged against players from the Air Force Academy on Saturday night at the USOTC, it was the first time the team had played using international rules.
"What I saw was guys competing," Smart said of the scrimmage. "Not everybody got the same amount of playing time, but we were all supportive. We are all one team, and we are all doing this for our country. We want to come back with a medal, and that's what we are going down to Brazil to do. This is way bigger than anything any of us have done before."
It is no easy task the USA faces. After practicing in Brazil on June 13, 14 and 15, the U.S. will play five games in five days. Opening against the U.S. Virgin Islands at 1 p.m. (all times are EDT) on June 16, the USA then takes on Mexico at 1 p.m. on June 17 and wraps up preliminary round play against host Brazil at 5 p.m. on June 18. The top two finishing teams in each pool compete in the medal round semfinals on June 19, and the gold medal game will be contested on June 20.
With just a week to prepare, training camp has been intense. The coaches are tasked with establishing a team, while the players work to establish their chemistry. It probably helps that all 12 players are staying in dorms at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, where they also eat and have access to athletic trainers and sports medicine.
"We are all in each other's rooms, hanging out, talking, playing games," Smart said of the team's down time. "Last night we were playing cards until like one in the morning or something like that. We are all just relaxing and having fun."
The fun had at the training center is in the past, however, as the team travels to Brazil. Hopefully, Smart and his teammates are enjoying the next step in their journey. Very soon, they will put their hard work to the test as they look to capture the FIBA Americas U18 Championship gold medal.