John Clay

John Clay: Louisville senior Russ Smith has a penchant for big games in Rupp

Louisville guard Russ Smith talked with official Tony Greene on Sunday during the Midwest Regional final against Duke.
Louisville guard Russ Smith talked with official Tony Greene on Sunday during the Midwest Regional final against Duke. Associated Press

"Russdiculous" is returning to "Russ Arena."

You have been warned.

It's hard to know which has stuck deepest in Big Blue Nation's craw these past couple of years — Russ Smith's ridiculously great performances in Kentucky's home or his supporters referring to it as "Russ Arena," as if he owns the place or something.

Then again, Smith has sure played as if he owns it, based on the three times Louisville's senior guard has used Kentucky Wildcats' hallowed hardwood for his own personal breakout sessions.

The first came in the 2011-12 Kentucky-Louisville game at Rupp. UK won 69-62, but had to survive a 30-point blitzkrieg from Russdiculous, who was firing right to the end, scoring 17 points in the second half and closing the game with not one, but two three-pointers in the final four seconds.

Then came March 2013, when No. 1 seed Louisville started its national title drive right here at Rupp, handling first North Carolina A&T and then Colorado State.

At the close of business, Smith had scored 50 points, grabbed 10 steals and made five assists. He scored 23 the first game, 27 the second, prompting the pro-U of L crowd to clear their lungs with some lusty chants of "Russ Arena! Russ Arena!"

To Kentucky fans, that wasn't exactly easy on the ears, much to the glee of Cardinal backers.

Tweeted Louisville fan @ThaBeach88 this week: "Y'all excuse me if I'm emotional this upcoming week, it's senior day at RUSS Arena on Saturday."

Saturday will indeed be Smith's final visit to the venue he has made his home away from home, not that he would admit such a thing, of course.

"It's just another game," he said last week after U of L had mashed Missouri State at the KFC Yum Center. "I've had good games against Kentucky, I've had bad games against Kentucky. It's just another game."

It is a big game, which Smith says has had more to do with his scoring sprees than the site of the sprees.

"Some venues you get just get lucky and shots go in, but I won't give the credit to Rupp Arena," Smith said last March. "They've all been big games."

In fact, had he not already been stamped "Russdiculous," you could call Smith "Little Big Man." The 6-foot, 185-pounder went from averaging just 2.2 points as a freshman — the season Rick Pitino dubbed the rookie "a nervous breakdown waiting to happen" — to 11.5 as a sophomore to 18.7 last season when surely Smith was the team's overall MVP during its championship run.

Close to tossing his name into the NBA Draft, Smith held back and chose to return for his senior season where he has had plenty new to do. After all, without graduated point guard Peyton Siva, he is the experienced veteran alongside newcomers Terry Rozier and Chris Jones.

"It's tough to play the way I'm doing, trying to be aggressive but also look for my teammates," Smith said. "I feel like offensively, I don't want to say it's slowing me down, but I'm not getting the same looks I was getting."

Smith's scoring average has slipped slightly to 16.8 points per game, but his field goal percentage has risen to 45.3 percent from 41.4 a year ago. He has twice as many assists (60) as turnovers (29) and plenty of praise from his demanding coach.

"I think Russ is playing spectacular basketball, he really is," Pitino said last week. "He just looks like a different player, and a better player. He's just making great plays."

Saturday, he re-visits the same Rupp where he has made almost nothing but great plays. His three-game shooting totals: 27 of 51 from the floor, including eight of 19 three-pointers.

"We know it'll be a tough game," Smith said of Kentucky. "Their height and length, they're always good there. Obviously, they can rebound the ball. They can drive the ball well. They're well-coached."

But can they stop Russdiculous in Russ Arena?

Notable performances in the Cats-Cards rivalry

Lancaster Gordon — March 26, 1983. Scored 24 points and made four steals in Louisville's 80-68 overtime win over Kentucky in NCAA Tournament Mideast Region final.

Sam Bowie — Nov. 26, 1983. Returned after sitting out two seasons with a broken leg to block five shots as UK defeats Louisville 65-44 at Rupp Arena in the season opener.

Kenny Walker — Dec. 15, 1984. Scored 32 points, making 14 of 25 shots, in a losing cause as Kentucky falls to host Louisville 71-64.

Winston Bennett — Dec. 28, 1985. Scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds as UK beat visiting Louisville 69-64.

Rex Chapman — Dec. 27, 1986. The freshman phenom scored 26 points, hitting five of eight three-pointers, and dished four assists as Kentucky whipped Louisville 85-51 at Freedom Hall.

Cedric Jenkins — Dec. 12, 1987. Scored just two points, but they were the winning two points as his tip-in gave UK a 76-75 victory over visiting Louisville.

LaBradford Smith — Dec. 29, 1990. Scored 26 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, but Louisville lost to visiting Kentucky 93-85.

John Pelphrey and Jamal Mashburn — Dec. 28, 1991. Scored 26 and 25 points, respectively, as UK beat visiting Louisville 103-89.

Jamal Mashburn — Dec, 12, 1992. Scored 27 points, making 10 of 15 shots, including five of seven three-pointers, as UK beat Louisville 88-68 in Freedom Hall.

Clifford Rozier — Nov. 27, 1993. Scored 29 points, making 11 of 15 shots, in a losing cause as Louisville fell to host Kentucky 78-70.

Samaki Walker — Jan. 1, 1995. Scored 14 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked 11 shots as Louisville beat Kentucky 88-86 at Freedom Hall.

Tony Delk — Dec. 23, 1995. Scored 30 points, making four three-pointers, as Kentucky whipped visiting Louisville 89-66.

Reece Gaines — Jan. 2, 2001. Scored 27 points, making five of eight three-point shots, as Louisville lost to visiting Kentucky 64-62.

Patrick Sparks — Dec. 18, 2004. Scored 25 points, including three free throws with six-tenths of a second left on the clock, to give UK a 60-58 win over host Louisville.

Rajon Rondo — Dec. 17, 2005. Scored 25 points and recorded seven assists as UK beat visiting Louisville 73-61.

Ramel Bradley — Jan. 5, 2008. Scored 27 points in a losing effort as Kentucky fell to visiting Louisville 89-75.

Jodie Meeks — Jan. 4, 2009. Scored 28 points, but Kentucky fell to Louisville 74-71 on Edgar Sosa's three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left at Freedom Hall.

DeMarcus Cousins — Jan. 2, 2010. Scored 18 points and grabbed 18 rebounds to give John Calipari a win his rivalry debut as Kentucky prevailed over visiting Louisville 71-62.

Josh Harrellson — Dec. 31, 2010. Scored 23 points, making 10 of 12 shots, and grabbed 14 rebounds as UK beat Louisville 78-63 at the KFC Yum Center.

Russ Smith — Dec. 31, 2011. Scored 30 points, but could not keep Louisville from losing 69-62 to UK at Rupp Arena, thanks to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's 24 points and 19 rebounds.

Anthony Davis — March 31, 2012. Scored 18 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked five shots as UK beat Louisville 69-61 in a national semifinal game of the Final Four in New Orleans.

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