Saturday, December 16, 2017
Sports

Louisville's Smith figuring it out at NCAA

ATLANTA

There are times when he is driving, twisting, whirling, that you think Russ Smith is going one-on-one against the world. It is in those moments of great energy, when Smith seems to see nothing but the rim, no defenders, no teammates, no crowd, that he seems determined to win games all by himself.

In those flashback moments, Rick Pitino ages another year.

Smith can be a ping-pong ball in a hurricane, a blurring player running on the edge of control. He believes he is quicker than the other guy, and better, and he has never seen a bad trip to the basket. And so there are moments, when Smith revisits the player he was, that Pitino's arteries harden, and his wrinkles get deeper, and his teeth grind to powder.

Then he takes a breath.

Smith, after all, is Louisville's best path to the championship, so you hold on, and you watch the 6-foot junior guard take another impossible drive through another crowded lane, and you hope the ball will drop through the net.

In Louisville, there is a word for this. Russdiculous, they call it. For Smith, it describes the way he plays. For Pitino, it describes the ever-evolving relationship with a player who seems to care about the right thing. Mostly.

It has been a tug-of-war between Pitino and Smith, the results of repeated meetings and ignored instructions. Looking back, it is a surprise that both of them survived the journey enough to get to tonight's championship game.

Yet, here they are. And if the Cardinals are going to survive a pesky Michigan team, it will once again be because of those relentless attacks to the rim by Smith. These days, both men understand that is the quickest way to victory.

"A guy like Russ Smith, when he first came in, never thought that way," Pitino said. "It was about points. It was about scoring. Now, Russ has gone full cycle. It's all about the team. When he tries to score more, in the back of his mind he says, 'If I don't score, the team won't win.' "

It has taken a while for the two to get there, however. In the beginning, Smith drove Pitino crazy. "A nervous breakdown waiting to happen," Pitino described him.

And so there would be a meeting, and they would be yelling, and there would be lessons, and they would be ignored.

"I'm starting to listen," Smith said Sunday. "I'm starting to do better. I'm starting to do the things coach wants me to do. I'm trying to stop doing the things he's yelling about on the court.

"Nobody likes a loser, I don't care how close you are. I feel like he's starting to appreciate me because I'm making big plays. You've got to win. His job is to win. It was bumpy during my sophomore year. We had a lot of meetings. He'd say, 'You've got to turn this around. This isn't good.' I think I've done a good job over the last year."

You could say that. Smith leads the NCAA Tournament in scoring. He had 23 against North Carolina A&T, and 27 against Colorado State, and 31 against Oregon, and 23 against Duke, and 21 against Wichita State. In Louisville's first two games of the tournament, fans chanted that Rupp Arena (rival Kentucky's homecourt) had been transformed into Russ Arena.

"I can tell you, he knew all about Russ Arena," Pitino said. "I can tell you that right now. I don't think I could be any more proud of a young man. He wouldn't play a stitch of defense, wouldn't pass the ball, didn't understand the game, and he's grown into what I think right now is one of the top three players in all of college basketball."

Oh, Smith isn't perfect. Look back at some of the reckless drives he had against Wichita State on Saturday night. But for the most part, Smith seems to have figured it out. He has come a long way since the player who had decided he was leaving Louisville after his freshman year.

He was miserable, if you want to know the truth. He would think that if he could play, he could contribute. Two points a game. Twelve a game. So he packed his bags, and he called his dad. Only the dad wasn't having any. Russ wasn't leaving.

You wonder. Where would Smith be if he had left?

"I don't know," Smith said. "Maybe some mid majors, scoring the basketball a lot."

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native grinned, then caught himself.

"Of course, I'd rather score a few less points and win," he said.

Nice save. Give it to the kid. He's trying to say the right thing.

On his way to the basket, he's trying to do it, too.

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