Russ Smith Louisville's all-or-nothing wild card

mmaloney@herald-leader.comMarch 28, 2012 

The wild Card in Louisville's basketball deck is Russ Smith.

Seemingly "all there" one moment, gone the next.

When Kentucky beat Louisville 69-62 on New Year's Eve, Smith came off the bench to score 30 points — nearly half his team's points.

The 6-foot sophomore from Briarwood, N.Y., has scored 47 points in U of L's last three games, including a team-high 19 in the 72-68 NCAA West Regional championship victory over Florida.

The three games before those, he scored three, four and six points.

"I put him in the game and all the coaches just hold hands and pray, and we see what happens," Coach Rick Pitino said with a bemused smile during his Tuesday news conference. "We never know what to expect with Russ.

"He gives us an awful lot and, sometimes toward the end of the (Florida) game he dribbles and went baseline, and kept his dribble alive. And you thought he was going to play Steve Nash and go to (a teammate), he just threw the ball up to the other team to make it interesting."

For the season, Smith is averaging 11.6 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists. He ranks third in the Big East and 19th in the nation with 2.2 steals a game. He's had seven starts and 31 games off the bench.

All this from a guy who last season played 96 minutes (versus 796 this season) and averaged 2.2 points at point guard.

There was a question whether he would return to U of L for a second season.

"I talked to his dad (Russell), who I knew when his dad was Russ's age and I was the Knicks' coach at the time," Pitino said. "I said to him, 'Look, if it doesn't work out next year, we'll try him once again; we will send Russ to go play with (former Pitino assistant) Steve Masiello, possibly, at Manhattan College. 'Big Russ' wanted him to have one more year.

"We moved him to '2' guard and he was a totally different basketball player. Now, he does play a little bit of '1' now as well, but the responsibility and the burden was taken off his back, and he performed."

Teammates took notice when U of L traveled to the Bahamas for 10 days last August.

"We found out that Russ, he could be incredible at times. And he could be just a regular basketball player at times," said teammate Chris Smith, no relation. "But throughout this season, Russ, he's played tremendous. If it wasn't for Russ, we probably wouldn't have won many games."

An all-or-nothing performance chart is "part of the Russ package," Chris Smith said. "You get frustrated at times, but you'll be more happy with him than frustrated, so you can't let it get to you."

Three a charm?

Pitino will be making a sixth Final Four appearance as a head coach, and his third in New Orleans. His Providence squad lost to Syracuse in the 1987 national semifinals, and his 1993 Kentucky team fell to Michigan in overtime in the 1993 semis.

"I'm hoping three is the charm in terms of winning a championship," he said. " ... We're very excited to be going back. Our players are very pumped up."

Smiling faces

Pitino noted that his Final Four experience helps him appreciate the moment. And his underdog Cards are enjoying every moment, too.

"Every time I see my grandchildren, you prompt them constantly to try to get them to laugh and smile," he said. "So to see my players so happy right now is just the most wonderful experience. You don't have to (prompt) them. They just bubble over with enthusiasm.

"You saw that, and Russ Smith was on the foul line at the end of the Big East Tournament, and he just yelled over to the bench, 'I'm finally going to win a championship.' He's never won in his life. His high school coach, Jack Curran, a legendary figure in New York City, said to him, 'Russ, what are you doing — winning and playing defense?' ... So to see all these guys, some of them who have not won, and have this level of success is just great."

Fanfare watch

"One thing our team has not experienced yet is any fanfare at all," Pitino said. "We were in Portland (to open NCAA play) and we didn't leave our hotel because ... it was just raining and cold. Then we got to Phoenix, we stayed at a hotel that was extremely remote. By desire. So we've not seen fans. We've not seen anybody. So I want to see the look on my players' faces when they get (to New Orleans), because they don't know what to expect. It will be quite interesting."

Closer to home ...

U of L's Kyle Kuric said he is "getting texts from people I haven't talked to in a couple years. People I've never really seen on campus are saying, 'Hi, good luck' and all this stuff. We're just having a lot of fun right now."

Said Chris Smith: "It's been really crazy (on campus). People that I have never even spoken to in my life have come up to me like, 'Hey, how you doing?' And they laugh and joke, 'You're playing great. OK, now we're friends.'

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com

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