BOZICH: Russ Smith Productive, Dynamic -- and Strangely Overlooked
ATLANTA (WDRB) – The topic is Russ Smith and how Russdiculous it is that Smith didn't receive the proper love in voting for the Wooden Award, first-team all-American and other national awards that Smith failed to win this season.
Russ Smith comes to Louisville's Final Four game against Wichita State Saturday as the best player in the NCAA Tournament who was unable to convince enough people he was also the best player in the country all season.
So I begin with a statistic, the first of three:
Free throws made in the NCAA Tournament: Russ Smith 32, the entire Michigan team 34. If Smith keeps making eight free throws per game, he'll finish the tournament with 48, the most since Christian Laettner in 1991.
You can't guard Russ Smith. Don't pretend that you can because you can't. Let those free throw numbers stand as evidence of that.
For all the unrelenting talk about the risky and outrageous things Russ Smith does with the ball, make a note of those free throw numbers. They tell a story.
The story is that Smith is not afraid of going to the rim against anybody. Defenders cannot stay in front of him. Smith understands the value of collecting the easiest points on the basketball court – free throws.
Does he launch shots that make U of L coach Rick Pitino howl? Absolutely. Shoot when he should pass? Sometimes. Live at the line? That's what the best players do. Russ Smith lives at the line.
In four NCAA games, Smith is averaging 10 free throw attempts. He's shooting 80 percent. He's easily the leading scorer in this tournament, averaging 26 points. Attack. That is what Russ Smith does -- attack.
"No disrespect to anybody else, but I'll take Russ over any player in the country," U of L forward Chane Behanan said. "He's not scared to make mistakes. If he does make a mistake, he's going to come down the court and do the exact same thing and hit the nail on the head.
"He's our Wooden Award winner so it really doesn't matter if other people vote for him or not."
Statistic Two: Michigan guard Trey Burke was named winner of the John Wooden and Oscar Robertson national player of the year awards Friday. In this NCAA Tournament, Smith has outscored Burke by 42 points and grabbed more than twice as many steals (13 to 6). Russ Smith is no one-trick pony.
Here is what is crazy about this: Smith played his way on to the mid-season watch list for the Wooden Award. The analytics that college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy uses to evaluate players ranked Smith as the nation's most effective player by a king-sized margin. He's still first, with Burke a distant second, today. He earned a jumbo spread in Sports Illustrated.
The world knew his story – that Pitino really didn't want to recruit him, that Smith had packed his bags to head back to Brooklyn several times, that he was likely to finish his career playing elsewhere.
And then all the national noise about Russ Smith nearly died.
Maybe it was the three consecutive games Louisville lost in late January. Smith scored only eight points in one of those defeats, the one at Villanova. His scoring average dipped under 20 in early January and never climbed back over that number. Smith threw in a 4 for 19 shooting performance in Louisville's five-overtime loss at Notre Dame. He took several outrageous shots in that game. Russ Smith stopped feeling the love.
Smith returned to being the undersized, ugly duckling shooting guard. The conversation shifted to all the things Smith did wrong instead of all the remarkable things that Smith did better than anybody else.
In this tournament, nobody has been better. Nobody. He's shooting better than 54 percent, making three-point shots (6 of 19), living at the free throw line and leading Louisville with 13 steals. His team is favored to beat Wichita State Saturday -- and then either Michigan or Syracuse for the title Monday night.
Think about this: Russ Smith has played so hard this season that he's lost nine pounds. He'll carry only 162 pounds on his narrow 6-foot-1 body against Wichita State.
Yet some people still aren't sure about Russ Smith. He knows that.
"If I get overlooked by playing hard for my team, then so be it," Smith said. "I just have to move on.
"At the end of the day, I have a bigger goal than making a Wooden list or an Oscar Robertson list or a Naismith list. That's to hopefully get to a title game. I just want to keep playing basketball. The lists, I could care less about because in high school I wasn't even ranked. It doesn't even matter."
Farewell Stat: Russ Smith has scored 104 points in this tournament in four games. Kansas forward Thomas Robinson led the 2012 tournament with 100 -- in six games. If Smith can average 26 for two more games, he'll finish with 156 points, the most any player has scored since Glenn Rice set tournament record (184) in 1989.
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