LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- University of Louisville basketball players undergo an interesting little challenge in practice. It's called, "Guard Russ."
I only know this because so many of them mentioned guarding Russ Smith when asked about their man-to-man defensive skills after Sunday's 80-39 demolition of Miami (Ohio) in the KFC Yum! Center.
Now, it's not like man-to-man defense is a foreign concept for the Cards. They rode their defense to the Final Four last season, using mainly a 2-3 zone that often morphed into man-to-man in various situations. So they know the principles.
Still, to see the Cards playing straight man for much of the game Sunday (though they did work in more zone than they have the past two games), and to see guys like 6-10 Gorgui Dieng out on the front of the press, or containing his man out beyond the 3-point arc, is a bit of a switch, and frankly, pretty impressive.
So I asked Dieng about it after the game, and he gave credit to an unlikely source -- Russdiculous himself.
"I've been guarding Russ in practice, and he'll try to take me out, take the five-man out," Dieng said. "And I've been moving my feet. And I think, if I can contain Russ, I can contain any other guys. He's fast. If I guard Russ, why can't I guard other people? . . . We do it while we're practicing, and I'll go out there on him and coach will say, 'Try and take Gorgui out.' And I try to play defense on him."
Put it this way. Those of you of a certain age, do you remember that Tasmanian Devil in the Bugs Bunny cartoons? A whirling, growling wild creature that consumed all in its path? Imagine guarding that -- after he'd been given a six-pack of Red Bull and a basketball.
Start asking around the locker room and you'll hear a similar tale repeated by just about everybody.
I asked Peyton Siva. I didn't mention what Dieng had said.
"Especially for guards," Siva said, "we feel like if we can contain Russ Smith, we can contain anybody."
Corroboration. Kevin Ware. Same. Tim Henderson. Same.
Smith laughed when asked about the phenomenon.
"I like it," he said. "Because I get a chance to freestyle a little bit, do a lot of different things with the ball (when teammates pressure him). Call it playing around with the ball if you want, but I try to do a lot of funny stuff, and they guard me well. They make it tough."
The Cards' three-point shooting Sunday likely will grab the headlines. They made 12 of 26 from beyond the arc -- and that's after missing their final five threes. For a team that came into the game shooting 24.6 percent from three-point range, that's a big deal.
But the bigger deal for Pitino was what he saw on defense. The Cards have been lights-out in the first half of games. They've given up an average of 15.7 points in the first half of their first three games. (Charlie Strong's U of L football defense has given up 21.7 points in the first half of its past three.)
What Pitino was most pleased about was that the defensive intensity continued into the second half, which it hasn't always done this season.
"We're a defensive team," Pitino said. "We win with our defense. If you shoot like you did tonight, everything looks great. Without question, shooting cures a multitude of sins. In 2005, we had 6 1/2 players and we went to a Final Four because the point, the wing and two other wings shot the ball. Shooting cures all your problems at times and you don't see the problems a team has, but that's not us. I'm happy we shot it well. I'm happy we moved the ball well. But we win because of defense. This team is built on defense. It was last year, it will be this year."
Defense is what stuck out to Miami coach John Cooper.
"I was talking to coach Pitino before the game and I've heard all the things about them not making shots, and I think it's interesting that everybody's saying that, because I think one of the things that they have created is that they've been able to win games without making shots," Cooper said. "So now when you start making shots, it makes you almost a dual-headed monster. It also gives you confidence as you go through the season, because there's going to be points where they don't make baskets, but they'll always know that they're going to be in the game and they're going to be competitive."
Cooper has the perspective of having now played U of L and No. 6-ranked North Carolina State, a 97-59 loss in the season-opener. He said the two were similar, though the Wolfpack is more offensively oriented.
"We were outmatched so it starts there on both ends," Cooper said. "N.C. State and Louisville are really two different teams. . . . You guys do it more with your defense here, they do it -- obviously they're good defensively, so no disrespect -- but they do it more with their offense. They just have so many guys who can score."
For U of L, the one guy contributing the most consistent offense right now is Russ Smith. His scoring average after three games is 21.3 points. But don't let it be forgotten -- he's contributing to the defensive strength, too.
If the Cards get to where they can contain him in practice, they fell like they'll be on to something.