LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — It is, admittedly, too early to start writing valedictories on the University of Louisville career of Russ Smith. The conference schedule only now gets serious for the Cardinals, who begin their stretch run Saturday at No. 7-ranked Cincinnati.
But in Tuesday night's 80-54 win over South Florida in the KFC Yum! Center, Smith was leaping Louisville legends in a single bound.
With his first nine points, he passed both Billy Thompson and Wes Unseld into tenth place on the school's all-time scoring list. With two steals, he moved into second on its all-time steals list, with Darrell Griffith. If he keeps chipping away, Smith figures to land pretty safely within the top six or seven scorers in school history.
In that group of scorers, with most of them, you pretty well knew. Everybody wanted Darrell Griffith out of Male. DeJuan Wheat was a Parade All-American from Ballard. Pervis Ellison was a coveted recruit. Even Reece Gaines was a Top 50 recruit, and Milt Wagner was one of the most sought-after players in the nation.
And then there are the Smiths. Derek Smith was a 6-6 sleeper out of Hogansville, Ga. And Russ Smith was nowhere near even the Top 100, a two-star recruit, from Brooklyn.
When asked about his lofty spot among U of L's all-time scorers after the game, Smith said he wasn't aware of it.
"I couldn't tell you where I am right now," he said, before being told by a reporter. "It's, as far as individual accolades, it's really nice and I'm thankful. Thinking back, coming in, I'm just thankful for the opportunity, and to my teammates: Playing with Peyton (Siva), him getting me the ball in those positions, and Gorgui (Dieng), always being over my shoulder to talk to me and let me know when I'm doing something wrong and keeping me level-headed, and the guys here now."
Tuesday night's win was not vintage Smith. He had 19 points on 9 of 19 shooting, and missed all four of his three-point attempts. He had two assists, two turnovers and two steals.
But that didn't stop Pitino from praising his senior guard after the game.
"I look at some of the rankings and in one Russ was like 90th in the country," Pitino said. "I'm praying the New York Knicks draft him. I'm praying. Because I think he'd be great with the Knicks. They need some guys who can get in the lane and do some things, and the Knicks are my team, so I'd love if he could go there because they need a guy like him desperately. It only takes one or two teams who really like a player, and I'm hoping teams really study him, because he can be a dynamic basketball player at the next level."
In one ranking, Ken Pomeroy's tempo-adjusted statistical player of the year index, Russ Smith ranks third in all of college basketball — and won the award last season. For the player who was dubbed Russdiculous early in his career, to be among the most statistically efficient players in college basketball is truly remarkable.
Smith's legacy at U of L already is solid. He's been to back-to-back Final Fours and was the leading scorer on a national championship team. He's just 29 points away from being the school's all-time leading scorer in NCAA Tournament play.
He returned to school this season after some, including his father, speculated that he might strike while the iron was hot and turn pro. Pitino said that Smith is accomplishing what he set out to do this season.
"What we asked of Russ, what the scouts wanted to see was, better shooting percentage, better shot selection — accomplished. Better assist-to-turnover ratio — accomplished," Pitino said. "He doesn't have great bulk. I wish Chris (Jones) would give him some of his fat. But he'll put on 8-10 pounds in the offseason and he'll get stronger. Everybody wants to fall in love with new players and new things. The newest phone, the newest gadget. But you look at the guys having great seasons, you have the young man at Creighton (Doug McDermott), Shabazz Napier at Connecticut, so many upperclassmen are really getting the job done. Now that doesn't diminish what Jabari Parker or Julius Randle or Tyler Ennis or any of the others are doing. They're playing awesome basketball, but some of the veterans are really lifting their basketball teams, and Russ' resume . . . is pretty tough to beat."
Smith said his focus as he enters the home stretch of his college career is on winning, and nothing else. He has scored in double digits in 25 of his 26 games this season. He's shooting a career-best 46 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range. In conference play, he's 48 percent from the field overall and 47 percent from three-point range. With two assists Tuesday, he passed his season total from all of last year.
"I feel like I do whatever needs to be done," Smith said. "I'm actually trying to rebound more. Ask me to play defense, I try to break the steals record. Need me to score, I do it. Whatever I need to do, I do it. I'm not looking to receive any benefits. It was nice being an All-American last year, but this is a different year. I'm just trying to win games."
Upon hearing that Pitino had touted him for the Knicks, Smith laughed and said, "That would be a dream come true. That would be a blessing. But I'll be thankful wherever I go. Hopefully it is to the NBA and in my country. If not, I'll be thankful to play somewhere overseas. And if not that, I'll be happy in the media."
Wherever he goes, when future players look at Smith's name in the rafters at U of L — and it will be there one day — they can remember that you don't have to bring a great pedigree or high recruiting rankings to do great things.
"What you have to remember," Smith said, "is a lot of people who do those rankings never played basketball. It's not their fault. It's just their job. So for those of us who were just two-star guys, you just have to keep playing the game and trying to learn, and you'll take someone by surprise."
No one ever pictured Smith's name alongside Unseld when he arrived on campus as a guy nobody had heard of, wearing No. 24. But Smith's No. 2 will be remembered just the same.
"We can't say that Russ is as good as Wesley Unseld," Pitino said. "You aren't born Wesley Unseld. He used to take the ball off the rim and throw it almost three-quarter court on the outlet, and he was one of the top 50 players of all time at 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8. So he's one of the greatest Louisville players ever. But that doesn't diminish what Russ has done. . . . He's having a remarkable run."
And Smith is hoping there's still a memorable chapter or two left to write.