Louisville Cardinals’ coach, Rick Pitino, has been blessed the past several years with tremendous senior leadership. In their 2011 – 2012 season in which the Cardinals finished 30 – 10 and advanced to the Final Four, Pitino relied on seniors Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric to help lead the way.
In the 2012 – 2013 season the Cardinals relied on two of the best leaders in Louisville history in Peyton Siva and Gorgiu Dieng. All they did was help the Cardinals win their third National Championship defeating Michigan in the title game.
All great teams in any sport have at least one common denominator: leadership. That leadership starts with the coaching staff and bleeds down to the players. The Cardinals would not have advanced to the 2012 Final Four without Chris Smith or Kuric. They most likely would not have won the championship last year if not for the leadership of Siva and Dieng.
Perhaps none of these teams would have advanced as far as they did without the help of Russ Smith. Smith will be one of four seniors honored Saturday against Connecticut on Senior Day along with Luke Hancock, Stephan Van Treese, and Tim Henderson.
Smith was not a heavily recruited player when he decided to commit to Louisville. The Louisville media guide has several schools he also considered, but Pitino has often jokes that Smith has made up some of the schools he was being recruited by. If not for the urging of former Assistant Head Coach, Ralph Willard, Smith might have never put on a Cardinals’ uniform. As the story goes, Willard and Steve Masiello was sent to Smith’s prep school in Connecticut to recruit a South Kent player. That player was not Smith. Smith was so intent on going to Louisville he even tried to commit before he was even offered.
Willard and Masiello had to convince Pitino that Smith would be a perfect fit for the Cardinals’ up-tempo style of play. At first, Pitino was not sure Smith was big enough to play in the extremely physical Big East.
Smith was a part of a recruiting class that included Gorgui Dieng. This class was not even ranked by any of the major recruiting services. Four years later this class would become a five-star class by many experts and most certainly Louisville fans.
Smith’s freshman year did not go well. Injuries (broken foot, concussion, strained foot, sore knee) limited him to 17 games. He averaged a little more than five minutes of playing time per game. Smith was not happy with his injuries and lack of playing time that he called his mom and told her he was coming home. He had a change of heart and decided to stay. The Cardinals would finish the season with a 25 – 6 record. They entered the NCAA tournament as a number 4 seed and were upset by Morehead State in the second round.
More playing time would be on the horizon for Smith’s sophomore campaign. He made the most of it by averaging 11.5 points per game. He was a spark off of the bench for the Cardinals for most of the season as he started only 7 games. Smith and Siva made it extremely difficult for opposing guards to get the ball up the floor as the two combined for 151 steals. Smith recorded a Louisville single-season record for steals, previously held by the great Darrell Griffith, with 87. The record would last for only a year with Siva breaking it the next season. The Cardinals would win the Big East tournament and advance to their second Final Four under Pitino where they were defeated by arch-rival Kentucky. Louisville would finish the season with a 30 – 10 record.
Smith’s sophomore campaign also brought about one of the best nicknames in all of sports. Pitino gave him the nickname, “Russdiculous”, for the crazy and sometimes unorthodox way he plays. According to an article in Sports Illustrated, Pitino gave Russ the nickname in January of his sophomore season. It happened during practice when Smith threw up one of his crazy shots. Pitino yelled at Smith saying, “That shot was ridiculous! Only you would take that shot! That shot was…Russdiculous!”
Louisville came into the 2012 – 2013 season with a ton of potential and experience. Could they feed off of the experience of getting so close the previous year and bring the first championship to Louisville since 1986? They proved they had it as they brought home the title.
The chemistry on the championship team was phenomenal. You hear fans talk about the chemistry and the love that team had for each other. Fans also talk about who was most responsible for the title. The title could not have been one without the steady play and leadership of Peyton Siva. It could not have been one without the inside presence of Gorgui Dieng. It could not have been one without the timely shooting of Luke Hancock. The Cardinals needed the solid inside play of Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell. It needed Tim Henderson’s two huge threes against Wichita State. With that being said, the Cardinals most certainly would not have won the title without the play of Russ Smith.
Smith led the Cardinals in scoring with 18.7 points per game. He combined with Siva for a total of 183 steals. Their defensive pressure made it difficult for opposing guards to get the ball up the court. He scored a Louisville record 134 points in six NCAA tournament games at times proving to be unguardable.
The only question after the National Championship was whether Smith would return to Louisville for his senior season. Louisville fans would have supported his decisions no matter what it was. The fans would be excited when he announced he wanted to come back for one more year.
Pitino told Smith he needed to become a better passer in his final year. He needed to improve his outside shooting. His shooting has improved dramatically as he has increased his overall field goal percentage from 41.4 to 46.8 percent. His three point shooting has increased from 32.8 to 39.6 percent. His passing has improved. He leads the team in assists with 4.5 per game.
There is still more to be written in the college career of Russ Smith. Will he lead his team to a third consecutive Final Four? Will the Cardinals be the first team since Florida in 2006 – 2007 to win back-to-back titles? Where will Smith rank on the all-time list of Cardinals’ greats?
Smith may or may not be a great NBA player in the future. However, I would not bet against him. He has proven everyone wrong his entire life. Whether it was being lightly recruited, being a 2-star high school player, to almost transferring away from Louisville, Smith has put himself on the list of all-time greats at Louisville. It is a list that includes the likes of Darrell Griffith, Wes Unseld, Charlie Tyra, Pervis Ellison, Rodney McCray, Junior Bridgeman, Dejuan Wheat, Milt Wagner, Derek Smith, etc.
Cardinals’ fans will miss Russ for many reasons. We will miss his attitude. It is an attitude that says ‘I cannot be stopped’, whether it is one-on-one or one-on three. With Russ it really didn’t matter if it was him against the entire team. We will miss that smile that only Russ has. The smile that tells you everything is going to be okay. And yes, we will miss “Russdiculous”. It drove us crazy at times for four years, but the good outweighed the bad. How many times have we yelled at the top of our lungs “RUSS!!!”? I will miss yelling it and I have a feeling coach Pitino will miss it too.
I finish by saying thank you to Russ for so many great times over the past four years. Thank you for being so likeable. Don’t ever change who you are as that is what makes you so special. Whether it is the NBA or not, you will be successful in whatever you do. That is what makes you Louisville’s newest living legend.