NEW ORLEANS - In a Final Four awash in lottery picks, there is still no guarantee that any of them will be the deciding factor in any given game.
This is still basketball, more specifically, college basketball. There will always be strange, wonderful, intriguing, and occasionally even goofy dynamics.
There is, in fact, a time bomb buried inside one of the four teams competing for the 2012 NCAA championship. It could explode at any time. So be aware that although Kentucky (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones), Ohio State (Jared Sullinger), and Kansas (Thomas Robinson) all have high lottery mortal locks on their squads, only Louisville has Russ Smith.
Smith doesn’t even start for Rick Pitino’s Cardinals. That’s part of the fun. When he enters the game, well, allow Louisville senior guard Kyle Kuric to explain what takes place.
“Oh, my gosh,’’ Kuric grins, “you have no idea what’s going to happen. He might get 30, or he might frustrate the coach to no end.’’
The 6-foot sophomore guard from New York City’s Archbishop Molloy High School, via South Kent School, is what you call your basic “energy’’ player. Whatever the game’s pace is, Russ Smith is guaranteed to make it faster, which seems to be quite all right with the coach, who has tagged young Mr. Smith with the nickname “Russdiculous.’’
There clearly is a bond between Pitino and Smith, but both are careful not to allow anyone to think Russ is a teacher’s pet, or anything like that.
“I take pride in building a relationship like that with any coach I have,’’ Smith reports.
It’s pretty clear that one of Smith’s daily motivations is a desire not to let his coach down.
“Our practices are very, very hard,’’ he says. “When we get out there in a game, it’s almost like we don’t want to lose because that would be a slap in the face to Coach Pitino after all the work he’s put in.’’
This relationship is interesting because if Pitino had remained true to his initial instincts, Smith never would have been a Louisville Cardinal in the first place.
Pitino has explained that he and then-assistant Ralph Willard had gone to see South Kent play in order to evaluate a player named J.J. Moore. Willard told Pitino he should be interested in this other kid, Russ Smith, at which point Pitino worried that his assistant was having a major spell, or something. Pitino had no interest whatsoever in Smith.
But Willard was persistent, and in the end Pitino gave in. He recruited Smith. Moore went to Pitt.
Smith made little impact as a freshman, as he battled his way through a broken foot, a concussion, a foot strain, and a knee issue. He played less than six minutes a game in 17 appearances, averaging 2.2 points.
It was a less-than-auspicious debut, and so there was a great deal of uncertainty concerning Smith’s role on the 2011-12 Cardinals. Things clarified a bit during an offseason trip to the Bahamas, when the staff decided that, 6 feet tall or not, he was not cut out to be a point guard. He had a couple of 20-point games on that trip. Even so, Pitino’s assessment at the time was, “I’m not sure where he fits.’’
There no longer is any confusion. Russ Smith has emerged as one of Louisville’s primary weapons. At 11.6 points per game, he is the No. 2 scorer on a club with six men averaging between 9.1 and 12.7 points. It’s just that he tends to get them in back-breaking bunches.
You ready? He had 24 in 25 minutes against Memphis, 23 in 22 minutes against Western Kentucky, and 30 in 27 minutes against Kentucky.
But there were clunkers, too, lots of ’em. He was blanked in eight minutes against Lamar. He had 2 in 23 minutes against Vanderbilt. He had a combined 5 in 34 minutes in back-to-back games against Notre Dame and Providence. He had a particularly bad recent stretch in games against Notre Dame, Cincinnati, and Davidson, when he had 3, 4 and 6.
All that has been forgotten, since in his last three NCAA Tournament games he has been an off-the-bench menace with 17 against New Mexico, 11 against Michigan State, and 19 (in 22 minutes) against Florida in the West Regional final.
Whatever Smith really thinks about not starting, he says what you’d like to hear about it.
“It definitely doesn’t matter to me,’’ he maintains. “It’s about whatever I can do to contribute to us winning. If it has to do with coming off the bench, and me not starting, that will be fine with me.’’
He is somewhat more vocal when the subject turns to his team’s circumstance as the clear underdog among the four teams here at the Final Four.
“Not to put down the analysts or anything,’’ he says, “but nobody picked us to do anything. A lot of people picked Davidson to beat us. Then it was New Mexico, then Michigan State, then Florida. After every game it’s, ‘Wow, they keep doing it.’ But we don’t mind. We play for ourselves, our fans, and the city of Louisville.’’
He may now have an understandable allegiance to the city of Louisville, but he is a Queens guy, through and through. Asked what qualities he thinks a New York City guard brings to the table, he brightens up.
“No matter what happens out there, we will keep coming at you,’’ he says. “Just because we may make a mistake, that doesn’t mean we’ll stop playing.’’
You won’t have to wait long on Saturday evening to know that Russ Smith is in the game. “He’s capable of scoring 20 straight points,’’ says teammate Peyton Siva. “We’ve seen it in practice.’’
Or he could go 2 for 20 in a three-game stretch. He’s done that, too.
There’s only one Russ Smith in all of college basketball, and Louisville has him. He makes life interesting for everyone concerned.