ORLANDO (WDRB) — Russ Smith has had his moments at the University of Louisville. Everybody has one they remember most.
Rick Pitino has a new favorite, in probably the game you least expected. Nothing went Smith's way in the Cardinals' NCAA Tournament win over Manhattan.
"I was disappointed in him last night, no question about it, the way he was playing," Pitino said on Friday. "But he showed me more last night in the way he responded in the waning minutes of the game than at any time in his career — because nothing was going right. I was upset at him, was really into him, and he just totally blocked his game out, the way he was playing, and made all the right plays."
On a night when everything was going wrong, Smith still had the right stuff. You think about off games, and you figure the stat line looks like a train wreck. On this bad night, Smith had 18 points. But it's only the final three that thrilled Pitino.
He'd been out of sync all night. His dad was in the stands. A bunch of childhood friends were on the other team. They were double-teaming him. And he had it, he'll admit, a burden he feels. He's the All-American on the defending national champion. He's a slight player, but he carries a lot of weight.
So as far as the senior from Brooklyn has come, he still has lessons to learn. And how well he can apply those might well determine how far Louisville advances, beginning with Saturday's 2:45 p.m. game against Saint Louis.
"What Russ has to understand, and it's what makes him great but it also makes him have some bad nights — and he found out in the last few minutes (against Manhattan) — Russ is more dangerous as a passer than he is a scorer, even though he's a great scorer, because everybody keys so much on him," Pitino said. "They know they've got to stop him, and he's going to draw two or three people, so what does that mean? People are going to be open. And that's where he's at his best, when he finds people when he draws double teams."
It's a matter of trust. Smith is like a faucet. When he's moving the ball, the Cardinals' offense flows. When he's dribbling it, forcing the issue, going one-on-one, he can take over games, even keep the Cardinals in games. But when U of L is at its best, when it has multiple players doing damage at various points in the offense, Smith is combining his scoring with a willingness to distribute.
"It's hard to know," Smith said. "Everything I'm doing on the court is to try to help us win. I missed some guys in the Manhattan game that I should've found, I saw that on the tape, so it's up to me to be thinking more about the total offense, and that's what I'm working on today."
Smith has given up work on his NCAA bracket. He said his is busted. He didn't pick Duke, for one. But the goal is not to pick upsets so much as to not be an upset.
Pitino said he isn't giving Smith advice on picking games, only on playing them.
"I try to spend as little time with that maniac as possible," Pitino said. "I would lose my mind if I spent ‑‑ I spend enough time with him, with his texts late at night, his videos late at night, what he watches. On my 60th birthday, I get a thing at 1 in the morning. He knows that I drink Grey Goose ‑‑ I used to. Actually I don't drink anymore (Pitino said he gave up vodka for lent on a recent radio show), and he texts me a huge bottle, thinking of you on your birthday. I'm not going to ever even try something like this, but I'm thinking of you. Then I get videos of a Samurai being stabbed a hundred times, and it's 1:30 in the morning. I don't know why I leave my phone on. Because you have children and you leave it on. This is what I get from this. I spend as little time with him as I possibly can so I can keep my sanity."
I have a moment from Smith I remember from this season. It was after U of L lost at home to Cincinnati. I was walking out of the KFC Yum! Center, and I walked out the door after Smith and a couple of his friends. Smith was talking on a cell phone, non-stop, so fast that I couldn't make out anything he was saying. It had been a jarring loss, but Smith was amped. He was saying something to someone, as if whatever he was imparting was the most important information in the world. He was on to the next thing. The next conversation. The next late night text. The next practice. The next game.
There aren't many more Russ Smith moments left. But he keeps managing to make memorable ones.