Does Louisville have what it takes to repeat as NCAA champion?
That's a Russdiculous question.
Because Russ Smith, aka Russdiculous, figures to be U of L's trump card this season.
Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng have moved on to the NBA. Chane Behanan is indefinitely suspended.
That leaves Smith and Wayne Black-shear as the only returning starters.
Smith averaged 18.7 points, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals a game last season. A propensity to throw in a mystifying out-of-control play amidst his highlights caused Pitino to nickname his loveable 6-footer Russdiculous. The coach even has a racehorse by that name.
Smith, for his part, sometimes refers to his coach as Rickdiculous. And he embraces Russdiculous, even if some see it as derogatory.
"It's a nickname that I like," he said during U of L's media day. "Everybody knows me for it. ... There's a lot of people who've never played basketball before and they'll continue to call me Russdiculous even if I do something fundamental, so I can't really worry about what people think. I just have to worry about what's important. And what's important is winning games and trying to get to the next level."
Smith thought he was set to go to the next level after last season. Then he found out that NBA scouts didn't necessarily agree.
"It was more tough to find out that a lot of teams wouldn't maybe draft me or take me in the first round," he said. "Because when you look at guys that I put up numbers with in the tournament and the whole season, and just everything I've done, there should be no reason why."
Smith called realizing that he wouldn't go in the first round "really humbling; so last year was probably one of the toughest times of my life."
Rather than preparing for his first season as a pro, Smith spent part of his summer playing for the East Coast All-Stars in the Four Nations Cup in Estonia. The American team competed against teams from Belarus, Estonia and the Slovak Republic. Smith averaged 23 points, 5.5 rebounds and five assists.
He called the experience fun. He says he had a chance to meet a lot of cool people. And he said he came back with his head on straight.
A pre-season All-American and the American Athletic Conference pre-season Player of the Year, Smith talks about making mature decisions and being a team player.
He says his off-season focus was "just being a leader really, and just showing people a different side of my game. ... Being more poised."
There is a certain hunger on his part to get back to college basketball's mountaintop once more. And he thinks the Cards' incoming recruits have an even stronger hunger to achieve what they have only heard about so far.
"It will be nice for the guys who've been here to try and let the young guys get a taste of that," he said.
A younger Russdiculous wouldn't have considered such a role.
"When I was younger, I couldn't admit that I was pretty selfish," he said. "I'd have dreams of scoring maybe 50 points in a game like (the finals) and maybe losing by one. But national championship game, to not have a big game, score 30 and to understand that and to sacrifice what you do best to help others win the game, I feel that's the kind of mature thing I've grown into."
The Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional, Smith was held to nine points in the national championship game — one of only four games in which he did not score in double digits. Not a problem, he says, because the Cardinals won.
The biggest challenge to a repeat performance, he adds, "is just us staying focused for the whole year and understanding that every team wants to beat us."
In trying to motivate the Cards for another title run, Pitino has discussed some of the NBA's dynasties, as well as Florida's back-to-back national champions in 2006 and 2007.
"Just being focused, being humble and putting all our egos aside. If we can do that, then I think we'll be even better," Smith said. "And I'm learning to do that. I have to work with the new guys. ... I'm willing to sacrifice."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @markmaloneyhl. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com.