Peyton Siva and Russ Smith are playing like the nation's best backcourt for Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Watch a basketball game that is over after three dribbles and your focus drifts to sexier topics. Watch the University of Louisville punish Missouri-Kansas City, 99-47, and you start asking this question:
With Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, does Rick Pitino attack with the best backcourt in America?
"Who's better?" asked Darrin Horn, who analyzed the game for ESPN.
The floor is open. Maybe Michigan with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Siva immediately mentioned those two. The guys at Syracuse are a handful. Baylor, Connecticut, Duke, Michigan State, Missouri and others have guys who can really go. Advance apologies to any pair I overlooked.
"I don't think you can pick them ahead of Louisville," Horn said. "Russ Smith might be playing better than any guard in the country. He's going to be a pro. And we all know how tough and consistent Peyton Siva is."
Make your pick. State your case. Defend your position. It's an infinitely more interesting discussion than the Cardinals' 52- point win against UMKC, a victory that pushed Louisville's record to 8-1 with a visit to an old friend, Memphis, booked for next Saturday.
If Russ Smith did not play a perfect game, even Pitino understands this was close enough. Smith scored the Cards' first eight points and then finished with 31, a career best. He was relentless, but he was not focused on risky business, the stuff that earned him the nickname Russdiculous.
He tried only 18 shots, making a dozen. Only a few could be described as outrageous. Here is what was Russdiculous Saturday: Smith also equaled his career high in rebounds (7) while contributing five steals and five assists. Not bad work in 27 minutes.
Smith bumped his scoring average to 20.3. No U of L player has averaged 20 since Reece Gaines 11 years ago. But it's more telling to track his field-goal percentage. He's making 45.4 percent of his shots, considerably better than the 35.6 Smith made last season. If Smith can maintain that against Big East competition and reduce his turnovers from 3.1 per game, he'll deserve serious all-American consideration.
"He's not a one-dimensional player," said U of L forward Wayne Blackshear. "He's playing a lot more point guard, making better decisions, obviously better passes.
"His dribble penetration is unbelievable. He can get to the basket at about will. Good luck trying to defend him."
"We laugh and joke with him so much around here that nobody takes him or your question seriously," Pitino said. "I wouldn't campaign for him, but without question, I think he is one of the premier guards in the country."
That is Smith, not Siva, that Pitino and Blackshear were discussing. It's essential to remember that because it was Siva, not Smith, who was voted the best player in the Big East prior to the season after Siva was named the Most Outstanding Player in the conference tournament last season.
There was nothing spectacular about Siva's box-score line against UMKC – four points, six assists, one steal in 21 minutes. But there didn't have to be, so Siva didn't force anything either. He took three shots. Siva did his best work on defense. He played his usual low ego, high leadership game.
UMKC made 24 turnovers. This was the seventh time in nine games, Louisville has forced 20 or more turnovers. Siva and Smith create instant claustrophobia, uncertainty and unhappiness. That results in risky passes that Louisville transforms into layups and dunks. Siva's shooting percentage has also improved (from 40.2 to 42.9) .
"We're just trying to make them uncomfortable," Siva said. "Russ is a great on the ball defender at picking people. I'm more off the ball, stealing it.
"We just have that great chemistry. I can read what he's going to do. If he gambles he knows I'm right there to cover for him. I know if I gamble, he's right there to cover for me."
And they also know they are absolutely in the middle of the discussion about the nation's top backcourt – with Hardaway Jr. and Burke at Michigan, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse, Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip of Baylor and your favorite pair.
"I believe we are," Siva said. "Probably other people don't. We try to put pressure on other guards. There's a lot of good backcourts."
"We don't like to get into that," Smith said. "But at the end of the day, we know we're good and know we're tough cookies to come up against."