Russ Smith is nationally known for doing things a little differently.
So it figures that, as a Louisville Cardinals star, he is as comfortable in Rupp Arena as in his own living room.
Louisville's drive for its third NCAA title got off to a rip-roaring start Thursday night in a red-filled Rupp as the No. 1 overall seed Cardinals buried outmatched No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T 79-48.
Louisville was never in even the smallest danger of becoming the first No. 1 seed ever to fall to a No. 16 and the main reason was the precocious Smith, the player Rick Pitino famously nicknamed "Russdiculous."
Picking up where he left off in scoring 30 points in Rupp last season in a U of L regular-season loss to eventual national champion Kentucky, Smith hit 10 of 16 shots for 23 points.
More impressive was his relentless work in U of L's full-court press. The slight 6-foot, 165-pound Brooklyn, N.Y., product picked the pocket of A&T ballhandlers for a whopping eight steals.
"Russ is really a special player," Pitino said afterward. "He said he was like a blender tonight, just around and around."
With Smith and backcourt mate Peyton Siva exerting withering defensive pressure on A&T ballhandlers, the Cardinals set what Pitino said was a team record for deflections with 67.
Both Smith and Siva (four steals himself) were credited with 16 deflections, the U of L coach said.
"We all know what defense can do," Smith said, "it got us to the Final Four last year."
For the most part, U of L (30-5) met the tournament opening-round standards one looks for in a potential national champion.
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The Cardinals jumped on North Carolina A&T (20-17) right out of the gate by seizing a 16-4 lead. That negated any benefit the Aggies derived from a pre-game pep talk from their most famous alumnus, the Rev. Jessie Jackson, who was in Rupp.
If you believe an NCAA tourney favorite needs some stress breakers along the way, U of L got that, too.
With just more than 12 minutes left in the first half, Cardinals forward Chane Behanan was in open court and soared in for a tomahawk dunk — which he clanged hard off the rim.
His teammates could not help cracking up in the middle of an NCAA Tournament game.
"SportsCenter Not Top 10," Siva said afterward of the ESPN weekly countdown of sports infamy.
Said U of L reserve Kevin Ware: "Chane will have to do something big to make up for that."
For his part, Behanan said he did not anticipate taking a lot of verbal junk from his teammates over the missed dunk.
"Because I've done dunked on everybody in this locker room," he said.
If you are one who likes to look to past numbers to try to discern future outcomes, the last 10 NCAA champions won their opening-round game by an average margin of 26.5 points. Louisville's 31-point victory over A&T puts the Cardinals above the norm.
To win two more games than U of L did last season in making a surprise run to the Final Four, the Cardinals need the kind of performance from the mercurial Smith they got Thursday night.
Pitino has recounted how TV personality Lesley Visser once defined the essence of "Russdiculous," by noting during a contest that the Louisville guard was keeping both teams in the game.
Smith did have four turnovers Thursday night, but his play decidedly boosted one team:
"He's making better decisions, he's not forcing the issue," Siva said.
Smith looks darned at home in Rupp Arena for a Louisville player. That's true when the arena is filled with Wildcat blue or, like Thursday night, is a sea of Cardinal red.
"That's Russ," said U of L swingman Luke Hancock, "he comes alive in big moments."
Added Ware: "He's Russdiculous. His name speaks for itself."
On Wednesday, in the Louisville locker room before the Cardinals' open practice, Smith had a souvenir leather backpack from the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans stowed in his locker.
"I really like that bag," Smith said. "I just want another one. That's what I'm playing for, hopefully get back to the big stage and get another bag."
If Russ Smith plays the rest of the NCAA tourney as he's played his last two games in Rupp Arena, he might get more than a 2013 Final Four backpack in Atlanta.
He and his teammates just might leave with the nets.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @markcstory Blog: markstory.bloginky.com