LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- This piece won't take long. Writing it comes with some risk. Journalists often espouse the causes of athletes they cover, usually because of familiarity. It opens you to the charge of "homerism." Whatever. Sometimes the charge is valid. I've tried hard to look at this a number of ways. I'm pretty sure, right now, I could say the same things if I were writing for a web site on the moon.
Russ Smith was named a third-team All-American today by The Associated Press.
That's not Russdiculous. It's ridiculous.
If he's not one of the five players who have had the greatest impact on this season in college basketball, I don't know who is. Now I know what you're going to say even before you say it -- the AP team is voted on before the NCAA Tournament. I say that's only further evidence of idiocy in a sport that weights everything by its 68-team final exam.
You have to be careful about this. The players who made first- and second-team are all deserving. Victor Oladipo of Indiana belongs. You can't argue it. Trey Burke of Michigan, automatic. No debate. Greg McDermott of Creighton? All right, he averaged better than 23 points per game. First-teamers, all.
Beyond that, I'm not buying it. Otto Porter of Georgetown and Kelly Olynyk of Gonzaga -- great players. They're not Russ Smith. They're not.
Their teams will not leave a mark on college basketball this season, other than one generated by off-the-court forces. Porter was Big East player of the year. His team won the regular-season title and beat Louisville at home. Smith's team also won a share of the regular-season title -- with a tougher conference slate -- and won the league tournament.
And Smith's team is still playing. It's in the Final Four, and it's there because of him.
Second-team, I could understand. Third? Somebody needs to do a recount.
When Smith's name first came up on All-American lists, I'll admit, I thought it was a nice turn for the junior guard from Brooklyn, N.Y. You know, it's an honor just to be nominated, and all that.
But the more you see Smith carry the nation's hottest team, now into the Final Four, the more you appreciate his game. Duke came in with the idea of shutting him down. It couldn't.
"There's not a better transition guard in the country -- I'm trying to think of one in recent memory -- than Smith," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He is courageous, plays with great heart. I'm getting old. If I need a transplant, I hope he would give me his. He could give me part of it and I'd have more courage than I have right now."
I'm not the only one wondering what's up. Rick Pitino wondered aloud.
"I look at Chad Ford's list, and I don't see Russ Smith, I don't see him on the All‑America teams," Pitino said. "Truly, I've been coaching a long time, I'm baffled, just baffled, because it wasn't like he's a Johnny‑come‑lately. He carried us on his back to a Final Four last year. . . . I look at him and say college basketball today is much more physical than the pros. When you watch the pros today, they go right away, hand check or anything like that, it's called. And Russ is able to get to the foul line, get a shot off, make the play, turn around and guard. I'd have him in the top twelve in the draft because of the way his game transcends to the next level.
"I'm very happy that everybody's missing the boat because I'll have him for another year. But I really, I really can't believe what I'm reading sometimes of this kid, because he's -- to me, I thought he was a runaway Player of the Year. Runaway. And that's no knock on the other guys, because they're great too."
I don't have to go that far. I don't have to go to a "player of the year" argument. I'm not saying he's on top. I'm saying he's on the lead lap. He's in the top group. I don't see how you keep him out of the top five, and there's no statistical reason he should be out of the top ten.
He played some of the best competition in the nation this season and averaged a tick under 19 points per game. In the NCAA Tournament he's averaging 26 points per game. And still playing.
Among players who made it to the Final Four, his tournament scoring clip is impressive. He's on a pace to have the highest-scoring NCAA Tournament since Glenn Rice. Twenty four years. And he also set an NCAA Tournament single-game steals record along with it.
He gets it done on both ends. In four tournament games, he has 13 steals. Last year, Ohio State's Aaron Craft led the whole tournament with 16. The year before, Joey Rodriguez of VCU led it with 10. And Smith is still playing.
I get it. The tournament doesn't count. But Smith did it all season. He's 32nd in the nation in steals, virtually tied with Oladipo, ahead of Miami's Shane Larkin in both scoring and steals. Larkin made second-team on a team that is out of the tournament. Smith was most outstanding player in the NCAA Tournament's most outstanding region. And he's still playing.
Ken Pomeroy has crafted his own statistical player of the year. Here was his goal: "This is a standalone honor designed to identify the most valuable player in the game, free of reputation, future potential, or amount of times the player appears on Big Monday."
In that listing, Smith is No. 1, by a good margin. Trey Burke of Michigan is No. 2., followed by Indiana's Cody Zeller, Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas and Duke's Mason Plumlee. He bases his ratings, in part, on how often a player is used offensively, and he builds in a statistical defensive component.
Only a dozen players in the nation are used on a higher percentage of their teams' offensive possessions than Smith (31.8 percent). He takes 32.5 percent of U of L's shots (23rd nationally). Only 15 players draw more fouls per 40 minutes. Only 34 have a higher steals percentage. In all three of those categories, he ranked in the top 10 in the nation last season, so he's done it for a while.
It's not a big deal. But it underscores the problem with opinion polls on anything. The numbers don't get to tell enough of the story. And Smith has more than numbers.
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