Former U of L assistant coach Ralph Willard remembers how he talked Rick Pitino into taking Russ Smith.
ATLANTA (WDRB) – Rick Pitino might win a basketball game or two at the NCAA Final Four. He's primed to become the first college basketball coach to win national championships at two schools.
But Pitino is already guaranteed one very expensive defeat: Long ago, before Russ Smith scored the first of his 1,205 points for the University of Louisville, Pitino bet his former assistant coach, Ralph Willard, a dinner that Smith would never be a prime-time player for the Cardinals.
Pay the man, Rick. Pay the man.
"Maybe I'll collect in Paris," Willard said. "Or Rome. Somewhere in Europe. I can tell you this: It's going to be an expensive dinner. A very, very, very expensive dinner. You can write that."
And it should be expensive, festive and unforgettable because Russ Smith is a remarkable college basketball player, one of the best in America. A very, very, very remarkable basketball player. You can write that – and everybody in the country will be writing it as the Cardinals prepare to play Wichita State Saturday in the national semifinals at the Georgia Dome Saturday.
With 104 points, Smith is the leading scorer in this tournament – by miles. The runner-up is Michigan freshman Mitch McGary with 70. The Wooden Award for national player of the year might go to Michigan guard Trey Burke. He's scored 62 points in the tournament.
Russ Smith has become precisely the player that Ralph Willard predicted that he would become after he dragged Pitino to South Kent School in Connecticut to watch Smith compete in the New England prep school league more than three years ago. It was the last – and best – recruiting suggestion that Willard made before he retired to Florida.
You know the story: Louisville needed another guard because the Cards' recruiting was wobbling. Willard and former assistant Steve Masiello went to South Kent to scout J.J. Moore, a 6-foot-6 forward.
Moore was a nice player. But Willard couldn't take his eyes off Smith. Nobody could guard him.
When Willard returned to Louisville, he told Pitino what he thought. Few people can speak as bluntly to Pitino as Willard can. They've been friends for four decades. Willard worked for Pitino at Kentucky and with the New York Knicks.
Willard made his case. Louisville already had Kyle Kuric and Mike Marra, two guys who played similar to the way Moore played. The Cardinals didn't have anybody like Smith.
"Have you lost your mind?" Pitino asked. "Russ Smith? He's 5 foot 5."
"Rick, he's almost 6 feet," Willard said.
"He can't play in the Big East," Pitino said. "He's from New York City and nobody else in the Big East has even considered giving him a scholarship."
"Nobody else on our team can do the things that he can do," Willard said. "He can move the basketball from point to point faster than anybody out there."
Nobody laughs at that description today. Pitino laughed at that description in 2010. He went to watch Smith out of respect for Smith's father, Russ Sr., who had sent his son to Pitino's basketball camp. Pitino agreed, reluctantly, to offer him a scholarship.
He parked Smith on the bench for all but 96 minutes of his freshman season. He did not discourage Smith from considering a transfer to Manhattan when Masiello left to take that job two years ago. Willard, who has since retired to Florida, argued that Smith was injured for most of his freshman season and deserved one more legitimate look.
"Russ was 147 pounds when he first came in," Pitino said. "He really didn't understand the game very well … He wanted to score 30-something points a game. That's all he cared about."
Now Russ Smith is as important as anybody in Pitino's lineup. He can score in traffic or from the perimeter. Disruption defines the way that he defends. His on-the-ball defense is as good as any guard who has played for Pitino at U of L. Smith has 81 steals, only three fewer than Peyton Siva.
Does he take bad shots? Sometimes. For Smith, that is the final frontier in his development to becoming a pro basketball player. But Russ Smith can get through gaps that nobody else in this Final Four can get through – and he can make shots that nobody else on Louisville's roster can make.
"It's the perfect marriage," Willard said. "Rick isn't going to tell you this but when Rick was in high school he was the same kind of player that Russ is. He had four Division I players on his team – and he took more shots than anybody on the team. There's a reason that Rick's nickname was ‘The Rifleman.'
"You can tell that Rick loves Russ. One minute, he'll be in his face, just flemming him up. The next minute he'll hug him like he's never going to let him go. It's been great to watch."
Especially with dinner – a very, very, very expensive dinner – on Rick Pitino.