LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — You could call it a rite of passage for University of Louisville basketball players — staying up all night with Russ Smith.
The senior All-American is notorious for being nocturnal. He's the main reason many Cardinals silence their phones before going to bed. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino himself recalls texts from Smith buzzing in just before 1 a.m., saying, "What up?" Pitino wasn't. When he said he'd been sleeping, Smith shot back, "You're a New Yorker. Why you asleep so early?"
On Wednesday night, with a league game against Houston scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Smith texted freshman Terry Rozier to come over to his room and watch a movie. The two watched Mortal Kombat in the living room of Smith's Minardi Hall suite till around 3 a.m.
And Smith talked. And talked. If the two appeared to have a solid chemistry in the Cardinals 91-52 trouncing of Houston Thursday night, it was forged amid late-night fantasy action cinema.
"We talked about everything," Rozier said. "We were watching Mortal Kombat because we're both huge fans, just talking, joking and laughing. I couldn't hang for that long. I had to tell him, Russ, I've got to go to bed. He hangs all night. He sleeps so much during the day that he has energy at night."
Rozier got the start at guard with Chris Jones injured with a strained oblique muscle that was heavily iced in the locker room after the game. Jones will miss Saturday's game at Connecticut, too. But with Rozier's steady play out front, the Cards may not miss him as much as they might've originally thought.
Rozier played 26 minutes and had nine points and eight assists. He made only 3 of 10 shots, but his presence gave the Cardinal offense a measure of control. He plays solid defense and gets the offensive sets moving. And he and Smith seemed to form a good balance. At one point in the first half, they combined for four straight baskets on assists from each other.
Smith finished the game with 18 points, five rebounds and four assists.
"Terry's a good guy. He just wants to come in and do everything he can to help, and because of that, he looks like the best player no the floor," Smith said. "He can shoot, he can pass, rebound, he defends, and with his athleticism he's tremendous. All the things he gives us, you can't always see on the scoreboard."
So what does Russ Smith talk about when you're sitting up with him till 3 a.m. U of L could probably sell tickets, if the NCAA would allow it.
"I just talk to him about the ups and downs, the highs and lows and sometimes not even basketball," Smith said. ". . . We have a lot in common. It's nice to have a guy, especially a freshman, who I can, not cater to, but kind of worry about, text them, ‘How you doing?' or in the game if things aren't going right I can talk to him. Just, everything I had from Preston Knowles, but I wasn't playing. Now he's playing, and I just try to give him some positivity."
Positivity has been the theme of the week for U of L. Or, as Rick Pitino calls it, "enthusiasm."
[Short break, to remember Robert DiNiro, wearing a tuxedo with a baseball bat in his hands in the film "The Untouchables," saying the word over and over, "Enthusiasms. Enthusiasms. Enthusiasms." But that's not the kind of discussion we're talking about.]
Pitino felt his team was too burdened with being the Defending National Champions. After its home-court loss to Memphis, he sought to re-inflate the balloon with positive energy. He told the players to shake off the expectations and pressure and begin to play with energy and fun.
This was fun for the Cardinals Thursday night: They made 11 three-pointers in 15 attempts in the first half to race to a 29-point halftime lead, then continued their defensive pressure and offensive execution in the second half against a Houston team that had played well enough to upset Cincinnati, but seemed completely out of its element against U of L.
"A really good night for us," Pitino said. "Our enthusiasm was off the charts. We were ready to play from the moment the ball went up. . . . It was exciting to be on the sidelines and watch these guys perform. I'm very excited about all the guys — they all played terrific. They didn't let up. It's not very often we see a team win the second half with a big lead. They were totally focused in on passing the ball. . . . I'm really excited for our guys."
The Cards got a career-high 23 points from Wayne Blackshear. Luke Hancock had 10 and four assists. They made 34 of 66 field goal attempts (51.5 percent) and 15 of 28 from three-point range (53.6 percent). The only down side to the performance was an 8-for-17 mark from the free-throw line.
"We just have to keep up our energy," Rozier said. "Right now is the best this team has felt, and once you have that, you want to keep it going."