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Never underestimate the quirky Russ Smith

Published 9:43 am Friday, March 22, 2013

LEXINGTON I must admit my first introduction to Louisville junior guard Russ Smith wasnt exactly the best. But rest assured, my second meeting changed my perceptions for the better.

A few days ago after learning Id be covering Louisvilles first game of the NCAA tournament against North Carolina A&T State University, I leaned over to my co-worker, Linda Younkin, and let her know a far from admirable secret.

I make fun of Russ Smith all the time, I said with a grin.

Louisville fans sure dont, she replied.

In truth, the first time I heard of Smith was a couple of my friends criticizing his goofy facial expressions, the fact a racehorse was named Russdiculous in his honor and that his poignant personality has earned him a fake Twitter account of 2,232 followers as of Thursday.

I didnt take Smith seriously, or better yet, I couldnt take him seriously. Was he really a player that could deliver in the crunch time of an NCAA tournament? All I really knew was that his performance against Notre Dame Feb. 10 kept me at the office until 2 a.m. waiting for the five overtimes to end and his multiple missed attempts prevented that from happening.

But after watching the Cardinal guard for myself against NC A&T Thursday night, Im afraid I misjudged Mr. Smith.

I quickly learned that Smith could deliver a game-high 23-point performance, with three assists and eight steals as he did in Louisvilles 79-48 victory against the Aggies at Rupp Arena in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Louisville was never in any real danger of becoming the first No. 1 seed to be beaten by a No. 16, in a matchup that featured only one tie score, which occurred in the first 30 seconds.

In the first three minutes of the game, Smith turned the ball over twice and missed a 3-pointer as the Aggies trailed 6-4. It was the closest NC A&T got to the lead for the remainder of the night. And the credit was due to Smith, a 6-foot, 165-pound athlete from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Smith, who went 10-for-16 from the field, hit his first shot, a layup with 15:26 to go, to send the Cardinals on an 8-0 run. Four minutes later, Smith tossed in a layup, stole the ball from Aggies Austin Witter and made another layup in a span of less than 20 seconds.

The Cardinals (30-5) entered halftime with a 16-point lead and with Smith leading both teams in scoring with nine points. The junior guard began his showing in the second half with two steals and another layup.

NC A&T (20-17) trailed by as many as 35 points less than a minute to play.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino began his post-game opening statement with crediting the Cardinals defense and Smith was specifically mentioned.

The Cardinals finished with 67 deflections, including 16 from Smith.

Russ is a really special player, Pitino said. He said he was like a blender tonight, just moved around and moved around.

So there I had it. Pitino the man himself, love him or hate him was smiling, joking and praising his junior guard.

I think Russ has really grown from someone who just wants to score all the time to a good passer, he said. In his freshman year, he made no attempt to play defense, and hes gone from that to one of the premiere defensive players in the country.

He was really, really good tonight mentally as well as physically. He truly has arrived into a great basketball player.

I sat in the third row in the press conference media room suddenly trying to swallow those moments in the past I had laughed at pictures of Smith. Being face-to-face with Smith and Pitino made me realize the goofiness isnt just in Smiths character, but it is in the teams relationship. And it is far from a negative aspect. It isnt something Pitino wants to correct, but something he encourages. It helps make the Cardinals the way they are, a close-knit group that looks poised to make a repeat trip to the Final Four.

And at one point during the press conference Smith said the Cardinals got off to a slow start, which made Pitino raise his eyebrows. The coach disagreed.

Russ thought we got off to a slow start, he said with a chuckle. I was pretty pleased with the start. Pitino added, saying Smith doesnt know.

Hes working so hard, he has no idea what the score is, or what is going on, Pitino said with a laugh.

Emily Patton: (502) 227-4556 EXT 264. Email: epatton@state-journal.com. Twitter: @pemily