Russ Smith led Louisville past Manhattan with 23 points.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – You didn't need a wiretap into the University of Louisville basketball office to hear where Russ Smith was supposed to be playing this season: For Steve Masiello at Manhattan.
Smith grew up in New York City. The talent crunch at U of L was going to make it impossible for him to get enough playing time here. The word was that Smith was likely to transfer to Manhattan by January 2012. He'd go home and lead the nation in scoring.
"He was coming to Manhattan," said Masiello, the former U of L assistant. "We had him."
Smith is still here – and he's still a critical piece of Rick Pitino's basketball team. Ask Masiello and Manhattan.
Just as he was last season during Louisville's run to the NCAA Final Four, Smith remains the team's most relentless and fearless offensive player. Smith scored 23 points as Louisville defeated Manhattan, 79-51, in the Cards' season opener at the KFC Yum! Center Sunday afternoon.
"Russ is tremendous because he is unguardable," Pitino said. "Russ was the key to the lineup last year. You take him out of the lineup last year, you don't win a Big East championship, you don't go to a Final Four. He gives you a dimension you don't have because he's unguardable."
Louisville won this game with defense and depth. They benefited from the absence of George Beamon, the Jaspers' best player. Beamon, a 19-point scorer last season, sat with a hairline fracture in his ankle. Even the presence of former Knicks' star Charles Oakley behind the Manhattan bench couldn't help the Jaspers.
"Obviously they're a very good basketball team," Masiello said. "They did a very good job of turning us over. I don't know what their weakness is. I think 1-to-10, 1-to-11, they really come after you. They were better than us today. They're going to be better than most teams."
Louisville also rode the offensive spark by Smith. He was the only Cardinal to make a three-point shot in the first half. Smith made half of his six attempts while his teammates missed all six that they attempted. Smith finished 4 of 13 from the three-point line.
Smith became a crowd favorite last season – and the trend has not eased. Several fans waved an "In Russ We Trust," sign. The crowd stood and roared after Smith made a pair of free throws and backed it up by stealing the inbounds pass. Smith led Louisville by contributing five of the Cards' 16 steals.
"Russ is always looking for the steal," Pitino said.
It wasn't a great offensive performance by Pitino's team. The Cards shot 45.2 percent and made only 8 of 30 three-point shots. For a group that even Pitino says is not a good three-point shooting team, the Cards didn't work at getting the ball inside to Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell.
"Luke (Hancock) and Wayne (Blackshear, a combined 3 for 14) have got to start making those threes," Pitino said.
Peyton Siva was solid at point guard, enjoying his second career double-double – 10 points and 10 assists.
But the defense delivered.
"Our defense is very good," Pitino said. "We're a low percentage defensive team. We hold people to a low percentage. I'm pretty pleased with the man (defense), except the guards don't rebound."
The Jaspers missed eight of their first nine shots. They had three points after more than 8 ½ minutes. They looked as if they were going to be fortunate to score 20. The Cards squeezed 16 turnovers out of Manhattan in the first half. The Jaspers finished with 27 turnovers and shot only 35.7 percent.
"This team can defend very well," said former U of L guard Chris Smith.
"It's one of the deepest teams I've seen," said Edgar Sosa, another former Cardinal guard.
The Cards play their next two games at home – Thursday night against Samford and next Sunday at 4 p.m. against Miami (Ohio).