Russ Smith needs help from Louisville's inside players to get the Cards' offense rolling.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – You want a number that should furrow Rick Pitino's brow every time he replays the video of Kentucky's 73-66 victory over his University of Louisville basketball team in Rupp Arena Saturday?
My guess is that your guess will be the rebounding totals. Kentucky outrebounded the Cardinals by eight and went up and snatched 17 on the offensive boards. Pitino mentioned the beating his team on the glass. So did his players. Many times.
Excellent guess, especially with UK's best rebounder on the bench for most of the second half. But incorrect.
I imagine a few of you will mention Louisville's brutal 23 percent three-point shooting and sub-par work at the free-throw line. The Cards need work there, too.
But I believe this is the warning light that flashes brighter than any other:
Russ Smith launched 20 shots, more than a third of the shots that Louisville attempted. Chris Jones took 13 more.
That's correct. Considerably more than half of Louisville's 58 field-goal attempts were taken by the starting guards. Most of them, Smith's fearless throw-down in the face of Julius Randle serving as the most vivid exception, were taken far, far from the rim.
You can say that without the 37 points delivered by Smith and Jones, Louisville would have lost by 20. You would be accurate.
I prefer to say that unless Louisville finds more effective ways to get Chane Behanan (0 points), Wayne Blackshear (5 insignificant points) and Montrezl Harrell (6 mostly insignificant points) percolating in the offense the Cards are going to labor to defeat a full-sized talented team. I would be more accurate.
"I don't think Russ played a particularly good game from a mental standpoint," Pitino said. "I think he took too many, ill-advised, quick shots and that hurts your defense when you do that."
That's a kind way to say that Smith played more like 2012 Russ than 2013 Russ. So the result was more like 2012 Louisville than 2013 Louisville.
Who wants to guess the last time Russ Smith launched at least 20 shots in a game?
You know where I'm going with this: It was the last game Louisville lost this season. Smith took 24 shots when the Cardinals were beaten by North Carolina. This was the third time this season Smith has taken at least 20 shots. He only did that twice in 40 games last season.
Twenty-shot Russ was Sophomore Year Russ.I'm not bashing Smith. He's still a magical player, a guy who could have left on top after the Cards won the NCAA title last April, but decided he could benefit from another opportunity to play for Rick Pitino. His effort and confidence never subsides. He took the ball at Julius Randle harder than any of his frontcourt teammates did.
Smith is usually going to shoot better than he shot Saturday, clanking all five of his three-point attempts and half of his 10 free throws.
But Smith needs help – and he's got to demand that he gets help from the pieces that are available on the Cards' roster. Pitino can't fix the Cards' problems inside by going to the wavier wire or demanding that his guys drink more protein shakes. The Cards aren't going to get taller before Selection Sunday.
"We can't change the height of the teams that we play," Harrell said. "We can't change the people that they have. We go out there every game with the game plan and look to execute it. This game we didn't do that. That hurt us.
"They beat us to loose balls. They killed us on the backboards. We had a game plan for this game and we didn't execute it. We took a beating for it."
This is going to require a longer look at the film and some adjustments. Some of the adjustments will have to come from Smith. He is helping run this team now, with assistance from Jones. That's a king-sized part of the reason that Smith came back for more. The job-description for that task begins with getting the basketball to teammates in spots where they are more likely to score.
That didn't happen against Kentucky. Harrell took two shots. Blackshear managed four. Behanan three. Toss in the pair taken by Mangok Mathiang and Stephan Van Treese's zero shots in 18 minutes and Louisville's entire frontcourt took nine fewer shots than Smith.
"Playing a couple of teams this year, from a physical standpoint, we are getting outplayed in the three, four and five spots physically," Pitino said. "Never mind execution wise, we are just getting taken on the backboard, taken inside and we have to improve in those areas."
Those are issues the Cards have to resolve. All Russ, all the time is not the answer.