LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Rick Pitino was worried about his team before the Colorado State game in the third round of the NCAA Midwest Regional Saturday afternoon.
In the locker room, he thought his players looked uptight. He told them, "Guys, I'm looking at you right now it's no good. Exhale baby. It's not life, it's not death, it's basketball."
One guy concerned him particularly. Not because he was too tight, but because he might try too hard. Pitino said he went up to Russ Smith before the game and said, "Relax, son. They're going to come after you."
Smith's response: "I got you coach. I know how to play this game now."
"Russdiculous" wouldn't' have said that, and to a greater degree, wouldn't have understood it. As early as the beginning of this season, he had a scorer's mentality, period. His brain had a GPS locked onto the rim, and every time he touched the ball it pressed, "Start trip."
But the evolution from "Russdiculous" to Russ Smith, one of the nation's most dangerous players, was on full display Saturday. Yes, he had 27 points, but he did it in a semi-controlled fashion, on 10 of 16 shooting.
"He's gone from a very good scorer to a great basketball player at both ends of the floor, and I'm not sure I would ever have thought when I recruited him I could say that," Pitino said.
"I'm very happy for Russ because Russ has learned a lot of things. He's learned how to play defense. He's learned how to pass. And the last thing he's learned is how to be humble. He'll get back with his boys and let them know how he did. But he's become more humble."
Against Colorado State, Smith had five points in the game's first 11 minutes. It wasn't shaping up as a monster scoring night. Then he made a three-pointer, and added a couple of free-throws. He left the game for 2:16, then came back and within two minutes had scored eight more points.
In three relatively brief first-half bursts, he had 18 points, and U of L was on its way to a blowout. He got so hot that LeBron James Tweeted about him "Lil homie Russ Smith putting on a show!"
After the game, Smith said of the King James shout-out: "I can't even -- wow, that's big." He also said, "If it'd been K.D. (Kevin Durant), I'd have passed out."
The old Russ Smith, of course, rarely passed. But one sequence Saturday night showed that's no longer the case.
On a 2-on-1 fast break with Peyton Siva, he hit Siva ahead with a bounce pass that brought Pitino off the bench to nearly interrupt the game with a bear hug for Smith. He's come that far.
"I honestly believe, when he doesn't pass ahead, it's not out of selfishness," Pitino told me earlier this season. "In his mind, him going to the rim is the best chance for this team to score."
But over the past couple of months, Smith has developed trust in his teammates, a recognition of when opposing defenses are keying on him, and a keen awareness of the value of the scouting report to his overall game.
"My whole thing right now is to focus on the scouting report," Smith said. "Coach P gives us everything we need. I'm trying to take that to heart and do whatever my job is to keep the team playing."
Shortly before Saturday's game, a U of L fan started the Twitter account RussArena, for his propensity for big games in the University of Kentucky's arena. After the game, Smith deadpanned it, said he had "heard something about it."
"I just play hard no matter what venue I'm at, and some venues you just get lucky and shots go in, but I'm not -- I won't give the credit to Rupp Arena," Smith said. "I work really hard."
Once Smith left the podium, Pitino said, "I can tell you, he knew all about Russ Arena. I can tell you that right now. He's also gained humility. I don't think -- I've been proud of a lot of guys at Boston U., Providence, Kentucky and Louisville. 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 really understand the game, and he's grown to I think right now top three players in all of college basketball, and I think you all sitting here would not be surprised by that statement."
It's all the rage to stick the name "Russ" anywhere it will fit these days. But Smith is a player who quickly is shedding the need for any kind of gimmick.
Heading into Sunday's game against Indiana, Temple guard Khalif Wyatt was being hailed as the best scoring guard, and most complete guard, in the NCAA Tournament. Yet against the Hoosiers, Wyatt took multiple possessions off, barely leaving the spot where he stood, and he was not a major defensive factor in the game -- though he is a top-notch defender, and has more assists on the season than Smith.
Compared with Smith's perpetual motion on offense -- with and without the ball -- and his relentless defensive ball-hawking (he tied an NCAA Tournament single-game record with eight steals against North Carolina A&T Thursday night), Wyatt isn't a slam-dunk in that comparison.
"Just think of the conditioning of this young man," Pitino said. "He picks up full court; he's always looking for a steal; off the ball he's denying, then he's running pick-and-rolls, then he's cutting, then he's scoring. You know what type of shape you have to be in to play like Peyton Siva and Russ Smith do? So I don't think (being left off All-American teams) is any slight to Russ. I just think he's a great basketball player. I'm fortunate to coach him. And he's going to be a really good NBA player because defensively and offensively with a 24-second clock and what I call today an 18-second shot clock, that's what the pros are all about, a guy like Russ Smith is really hell."
And these days, instead of being hell on his coach, he's hell on his opponents.
But he hasn't completely lost his wild side. Walking the interview room with Pitino Saturday, he asked the coach if he'd seen his last move of the game with the ball. When Pitino told him he'd missed it, Smith started to re-enact it in the hallway, doing almost a dance to replicate the footwork he'd used. Pitino just shook his head.
"I just said, just relax, Russ, and let's move on to the next game," Pitino said. "But he's such a cute young man. I use that word meaning he's such a playful young man that enjoys the game that he's fun to be around."
Fun to watch, too. But he's becoming a serious player.