LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The program, of course will go on. It'll proceed into its new Atlantic Coast Conference home at the same high level its fans expect. But the end of this season is the end of something special for the University of Louisville basketball program, and today is Louisville's day to say goodbye to four seniors before they try to add to the story they've been writing the past three years.
When Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Tim Henderson and Stephan Van Treese exhaust their eligibility, most of the fabric of this past three-season run will be gone. There will be just enough left to keep building. But enough will have been lost that the page will turn.
I've put a lot of thought into these guys lately. I've written quite a bit about them over the past several years. I tried to sum up the career of each one after the national championship last season. You win a championship, and you become frozen in time. You can read those four stories about them in the links below. But for these four, they've had a chance to add to those chapters. In fact, they could add significantly more, given their postseason performances of the past two years.
I'm in the process of finishing a book, "100 Things Every Louisville Cardinals Fan Should Know and Do Before They Die." It will come out next fall. Some of these seniors have chapters yet to be finished.
But already, you can't be a Cardinal fan without knowing about Russdiculous. Even the president called him by that nickname. Or Luke Hancock? First reserve to win Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Those four threes in a row? Tell me those four aren't in the top 10 moments in the program's history. Tim Henderson? The 2013 NCAA title doesn't happen without him. You remember his two three-pointers. You probably don't remember Stephan Van Treese's very crucial NCAA Tournament contributions. I'll remind you here.
There will be a lot written about these guys. Rick Bozich summed up really well what they mean as a group. I thought I might add my personal thoughts on what they mean, what they've done, before they lace them up in this town for the last time: RUSS SMITH: The other night I Tweeted something. I said, "As great as Russ Smith is, if he can't figure out when to stay on script in the offense, he won't be the leader U of L needs."
Smith then scored 22 second-half points. While running to the sidelines to throw up in a trash can. I'm pretty sure none of that was on any kind of script. That's Russ Smith in a nutshell. He is freestyle. There's no point in even having a drummer. His beat is whatever he can do between dribbles. Mike Krzyzewski calls him "the best transition guard in the country."
He's the ultimate "no . . . YES!" player. On the rare occasions when I get to sit close enough to hear Pitino's sideline screams, it's a 1930's slapstick act. "No Russ. No Russ. No Russ. Nice take, Russ." In a win at Connecticut, this year, it was an all-time great: "Bring it out Russ. Bring it out Russ. Bring it out Russ. Bring it out Russ. Russ! Bring it out." On the fifth time, Smith brought it out. Pitino said he got Smith over in the timeout and asked him what he was doing? "I was just probing," Smith said.
For four years, Smith has been probing, testing Pitino's boundaries, even stretching them. Eventually the Hall of Fame coach just had to let go. "You have to let Russ be Russ," Pitino said, then reached for a bottle of antacid.
At Notre Dame, in the five overtime loss, Smith went haywire at the end of about three of them. After one, in which, instead of a carefully orchestrated play Smith simply pulled up and shot from about 30 feet, Pitino went ballistic. He told Fred Hina to take his temperature. He wanted a psych evaluation on the spot. Give him some ADHD medicine. Do something. I the midst of all this, Smith turns to Pitino and says, "I think you need a hug."
It was after that game that Smith became a serious player. He started showing the kind of interest in scouting reports that he'd previously only shown in video games. There were times — like several early-round NCAA Tournament games last season — that he was so good the Cardinals were just impossible to beat. You could do everything right defensively. You could cover everything. But then Russ would be Russ, and you were pulling the ball out of the net.
Smith would show up at high school basketball games and wind up escorting some girl whose escort didn't show. He ran for homecoming king.
All you need to know about Russ Smith's ability to transform people around him you can see in Gorgui Dieng. When Dieng arrived at U of L he barely spoke English, and never messed with cell phones or video games. By the time he left, he could play the X-Box, text on his phone and watch a movie on his iPad all while carrying on a conversation with Smith.
Smith is legendary for his nocturnal nature. He doesn't seem to need sleep. Teammates turn off their phones to avoid the wee-hours group text. Pitino describes waking up to his phone buzzing at 1 a.m. The text: "You up?" The sender: Russ Smith. Pitino answers, "No, I'm not up, it's 1 a.m." Smith: "I thought you were a New Yorker. What are the Knicks going to do?"
"Even when he is sleeping," Dieng said of him, "it's like he's running the break."
During the Cardinals' championship season of 2012-13, nearly one in four shots the team took came off the hands of Russ Smith. Only one player in school history has scored more in a season than his 748 points last year — Darrell Griffith in 1980. Only Griffith, Pervis Ellison and Milt Wagner have scored more NCAA Tournament points.
I'm not sure why he isn't more of a player of the year contender nationally. Doug McDermott has had a great career. Points, rebounds, wins. Russ Smith has points, assists, steals, wins. And two Final Fours. And a national title. And perhaps more.
He came with no fanfare and no defense. He made himself into the school's all-time steals leader. He came with little discipline, yet turned himself into a student of the game and one of the team's best passers.
He came to U of L an afterthought. He nearly left. He earned a funny nickname. He'll leave one of the most beloved players in the history of the program. He'll be back when they hang his name from the rafters.
Chances are, Pitino will still get those middle-of-the-night texts from time to time. Everyone else will have to live with the memories. Fortunately, he has supplied quite a few. LUKE HANCOCK: These days, people don't have a hangnail without broadcasting it on the Internet. We know every daily trial of any public person we want to follow.
That's why it was of such significance when Luke Hancock, quietly in Atlanta, mentioned to a few guys that he was so happy he could come up with a big game while his father was still around to watch it.
That's about all he would say. There was no detail. There was no ESPN 30-for-30. There's been no long narrative story since, outlining the ordeal he faced while trying to lead an NCAA championship team with a father he knew was dying.
Look at what he did during that time. The Regional Final against Duke. With Kevin Ware on the ground with a broken leg, he was the only Cardinal player to go to his side. He knelt down and took Ware's hand and prayed silently. And it was while he was there praying that Ware gathered himself and decided that he wasn't going to go off the court thinking about himself, but by telling his teammates he was fine, to just win the game. Those words changed Ware's life.
But there was another moment in that game. At the end of a blowout. It seemed like a meaningless moment. But Hancock drew the defense and got the ball on the wing to Tim Henderson, who buried a three-pointer.
Nobody really would realize the significance of that small thing until Henderson hit two more in the Final Four, without which the Cards likely wouldn't have gone to the championship.
It's a little bit cliche to talk about guys who do little things that make a big difference. But Hancock did some big things, too.
In the national semifinal against Wichita State last season, he was the Cards' primary weapon. Pitino used him not only at small forward, but at shooting guard, and even some at point guard. Some of the biggest baskets of the season were his. He nailed a monumental three with 2:06 to put the Cardinals up five. He then drove for a layup in traffic to keep them in the lead with 1:16 left. With nine seconds left, he was at the free throw line. He made the first, then missed the second, but tied up Wichita State's Ron Baker to get the ball back, and Russ Smith made a final free throw to seal it.
Oh, and there was the matter of those four straight threes in the NCAA title game against Michigan. Everybody will remember those. Chances are they won't remember the strength it took for him to rehab his way back to playing. They'll remember his slow shooting start last season. They won't remember it took a half-hour of drills with trainer Fred Hina for him to even be able to lift his arm above his shoulder.
Again, he didn't talk about it. As close as he got to saying anything about the strain of those injuries, or even the strain of playing with a father who was dying, was to joke along with a message of 4 the Haterzz from time to time. He won homecoming king.
You have to respect somebody who goes through those kinds of trials and doesn't talk about them, just works to excel anyway. In the end, what he accomplished will live on. What he had to overcome to accomplish it shouldn't be forgotten, either.
Speaking with reporters before his Senior Day game, he said, "I'm a pretty lucky guy."
TIM HENDERSON: Before the Cardinals played Wichita State, several of us were gathered around Tim Henderson's locker and he talked about the challenge in front of him, with Kevin Ware lost to the team. He said all the right things. But you could tell in his voice, the weight of the moment was wearing on him.
Or maybe it wasn't. Henderson came to U of L from Christian Academy in Louisville. Rick Pitino didn't recruit him. He recruited Pitino. He wrote letter after letter to the coach, asking for a chance to walk on.
Pitino found it hard to say no to him. Matt Morris, the Cards' former video coordinator, liked his game. So did Ralph Willard. (Where would U of L be without Willard, who talked Pitino into taking both Henderson and Russ Smith?)
The image of Henderson I'll most remember is a strange one, because I couldn't see him at all. It was his locker, mobbed by media, after his performance in the win over Wichita State.
Think about this. Wichita State has won 36 of its past 37 games. The only loss in all that time came because Henderson came off the bench and buried two three-pointers from the right wing.
I couldn't get over to talk to him after that game. Sports Illustrated wanted his story, and ESPN, and CBS, and anyone with a microphone.
It's one thing to take walk-ons. It's another to work with them until they can make big plays in the NCAA Tournament. Henderson continued a tradition of Pitino's, of walk-on players who provide memorable moments.
Without him, it would've been a nice run to the Final Four. With him, the championship was possible. His were among the biggest shots in the program's history.
"I'm known by that now," he said. "It's changed my name from Tim to Wichita."
Henderson grew up here. He grew up watching the program. Even had he not played, he would represent kids all over the city who would give anything just to put on the uniform, who persevere in asking for their chance, who even would pay for the privilege.
But he did more than occupy a seat. He worked. He pushed others in practice. And when he got his shot, he nailed it. STEPHAN VAN TREESE: Gorgui Dieng might've had his worst game of the season against Wichita State in the Final Four. He couldn't seem to get much of anything done against the physical Shockers, who turned the game into a wrestling match in the paint and who refused to give up any looks from close range.
Into the game came Van Treese, who went to work with his own physical play inside. He not only grabbed three rebounds, but he was a defensive presence, pushing back when Wichita State seemed to be able to score at will. He was part of the Cards' bench resistance in the game, and was as much a reason they won the game as anyone. Without him, Dieng's subpar game might've sunk them.
And that wasn't the only time in the tournament his number was called. Dieng got into foul trouble the game prior, against Duke. Van Treese came in, made a pair of big free throws and grabbed three rebounds. His 15 minutes of solid play inside allowed U of L to absorb the shock of losing Kevin Ware and build a 20-4 second-half run.
The things he does, you can't always see. He's not a good scorer. But he can score. And his willingness to screen, to fight for offensive rebounders, to keep balls alive, are major assets to the Cards' offense.
It was a Van Treese offensive rebound and dish that led to the fourth of Hancock's consecutive threes in the NCAA title game.
An interesting stat. It may be a statistical anomaly, but that doesn't make it invalid. Ken Pomeroy assigns an offensive rating to every player. It measures production over time, to come up with a statistical rating for efficiency.
For U of L, the most efficient offensive player, according to Pomeroy's numbers, is Van Treese. In fact, he ranks 12th in the nation, though he doesn't qualify for those rankings because he's used on fewer than 12 percent of the team's offensive possessions.
But when he is in the game, he rebounds 13.2 percent of U of L's missed shots. All by himself. That ranks 58th in the nation. His overall offensive efficiency rating is 12th in the nation.
He nearly left when Montrezl Harrell signed. He and Pitino patched things up when a scholarship came back open. Had he not, who knows where the Cards might have been last season. They might've lost to Duke when Dieng got into foul trouble. They might've fallen to Wichita State for the inability to stop them inside.
He's played 52 percent of the team's minutes this season. And the Cards will not make another deep postseason run without a significant contribution from him.
He spent four years working to prove he should get a chance to start. Now he has the job, and he has a chance to do something special with it over the final month of his college career.
He doesn't score, but his career is a lesson: The things he does do are important.
He'll be missed by reporters because you can ask him what happened, and he'll tell you, with a coach's eye, with the experience of five years and one who has been there. It's the same for all these seniors. Not all players are gracious with their time or thoughts. These guys all were.
These four players will say goodbye today, but there's one other thing I'll remember about them.
The interdependency of their careers is probably the most striking thing about them. Smith without Peyton Siva wouldn't have thrived. Go down the line. All of them needed another to do something to make his success possible. They were more together than they could be separately.
This is the old lesson of sports, of course. But it's nice to see it played out every once in a while in the present day.
That it played out so well for these guys is testament to their trust, hard work, and a bond that only they know. It's been fun to watch.