Louisville guard Russ Smith still ranks first in Ken Pomeroy's national player of the year ratings.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Take better shots. Look for teammates. Avoid risky plays. Finish with poise.
That has been Rick Pitino's message to Russ Smith as the University of Louisville basketball team cruises into the defining part of its schedule, starting with the game the Cardinals will play against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome Saturday.
Know this: It could also be Dean Smith talking to Michael Jordan, Mike Krzyzewski huddled with Grant Hill or Jim Calhoun instructing Kemba Walker. It's Basketball 101. Essentially, it's what every coach wants every player to do. Because Smith shoots on about one-third of Louisville's possessions when he is on the court, people often shake their heads.
"I can pass," Smith said. "I know I can. I've just got to make the right decision whether it's shoot or look for the open guy."
Contrary to what many believe, Russ Smith is not only willing to do it, he has already embraced a more team-oriented approach over the first 28 games.
I can defend that point, but first I'll let Ken Pomeroy do it. His latest serving of basketball statistical analytics, posted Friday at www.kenpom.com, have Russ Smith ranked Number One in the national player of the year race -- ahead of Indiana's Victor Oladipo, Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, Michigan's Trey Burke, Duke's Mason Plumlee and the other contenders.
Disagree? I understand. You probably think Smith shoots too much. Try some old-school numbers that show Smith knows what he is doing – and what he needs to do.
Over Louisville's last six games, Smith has attacked the rim relentlessly and gone to the free throw line 61 times. He's made 55, which is better than 90 percent. That's right – he's averaging 9 points per game at the line. He's getting half his 18.4-point average without a defender in his face. That's winning basketball.
Smith (Dean) would approve of Smith's (Russ) assist to turnover ratio (25-to-13). (Smith's assist average is up 52 percent over last season.) He's averaged two steals and close to six rebounds per game, two more than his full-season average. Don't forget that Smith is 6'-1" tall.
Russ Smith is a very good player – and mature enough to understand he needs to be even better for Louisville to play into April.
What Smith has to do better is take fewer bad shots – contested shots, shots outside of his comfort zone, shots that make Pitino grind his loafers into the sidelines. His shooting percentage has slipped over the last half-dozen games. He must do better than 25 for 73. He says he will.
"It's not hard to change if it's all in the facet of winning," Smith said. "If I want to win, I have to change. I'm willing to make changes."
"It's always going to be hard at first because you're diverting away from something you've always done," he added. "If it comes down to, in order for us to win you have to play like this, then I'm going to try everything in my power to practice that."
Try to remember this: Being a pass-first player is not what got Russ Smith to the University of Louisville.
He's small. He's thin. He was under-recruited. He's here because when Russ Smith has the ball, good things are always possible. You can't say that about every player.
He grew up in Brooklyn with the same feelings that a lot of young players in that New York City borough have: Smith wanted to play for Syracuse.
"I've always loved them as a program," Smith said. "Me and my dad were great fans of Jonny Flynn, and we all liked Carmelo Anthony, who was born in Brooklyn. Jonny Flynn was awesome, [a] short guard who could dunk."
Syracuse, however, did not want Russ Smith. No calls. No interest. Nothing.
"Not at all," he said "No interest whatsoever. I'm not saying that they needed to. I probably wouldn't have recruited myself either. It's no knock on Syracuse."
Smith never developed or held a grudge. He didn't have time. He had to keep showing the world that he could play. Russ Smith has done that – all season.