LOUISVILLE (AP) — Russ Smith’s perfectly happy at No. 2 Louisville and showed Manhattan how much on Sunday.
The junior guard scored a game-high 23 points to help the Cardinals pull away for a season-opening 79-51 victory against the Jaspers. Smith had considered transferring to Manhattan to follow Jaspers coach Steve Masiello, who was a Louisville assistant from 2005-11.
Masiello thought it was a done deal.
“He was coming to Manhattan,” he said. “I thought we had him.”
Smith decided to stay and his shooting boosted Louisville against his would-be destination. The Cardinals were just 8 of 30 from 3-point range but Smith hit four of those shots from behind the arc to help his team pull away.
“Russ rushes too much in a hurry,” Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said. “But everything he does in his life is in a hurry.”
Everything except Smith’s decision to stay at Louisville, that is.
“I know everybody at Manhattan,” Smith said. “I know Mass (Masiello). My dad knows him well. But I really never even considered it.
“To be serious, we had talks. But I know the coach and the staff. I didn’t want to (go), I didn’t want to leave. I’ve never left anywhere since high school. Keeping some stability and staying was best for my career.”
Peyton Siva added 10 points and 10 assists for Louisville, which won its ninth straight opener. Kevin Ware added 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting, and Chane Behanan and Luke Hancock both eight points for the Cardinals.
Siva, the Most Outstanding Player in last season’s Big East Conference tournament, matched his career high in assists while recording only his second double-double.
Behanan, who was suspended for both of Louisville’s exhibition games following a series of off-court incidents, added a team-high nine rebounds.
Rhamel Brown had 18 points and 15 rebounds for Manhattan and Michael Alvarado added 13. George Beamon, the Jaspers’ top scorer, did not play after injuring his ankle in practice on Friday.
The schools played for the first time since the 2002-03 season. This was the first time Jaspers coach Steve Masiello coached against Louisville.
Louisville forced 27 Manhattan turnovers and held the Jaspers to 36 percent shooting.
“That was some homecoming,” Masiello joked. “We struggled to find our flow offensively.”
Manhattan had a rough lead-in on the season. The Jaspers were displaced by Superstorm Sandy, practiced in a borrowed gym and had an exhibition game against C.W. Post cancelled.
In spite of everything, Manhattan trailed Louisville by just 28-19 at halftime.
The Cardinals started a couple of new faces in junior guard Hancock and freshman Montrezl Harrell.
Hancock made his Cardinals’ debut after sitting out last season per NCAA rules following his transfer from George Mason. Though still recovering from surgery last spring on his right shooting shoulder, he is expected to boost Louisville’s perimeter shooting after the team converted 32 percent from 3-point range during last year’s Final Four run.
The first half showed that that’s still a work in progress for Hancock and the Cardinals, who were coming off a 1-for-19 showing from behind the arc in last Wednesday’s exhibition victory over Bellarmine. Louisville followed up by hitting just 3 for 12 in the first half with only Smith having success.
“It was pretty decent,” Smith said. “I didn’t rebound enough so got to come in next game get a few boards help the big guys out and hopefully coach won’t bother me anymore.”
Hancock had good looks on his nine attempts but just couldn’t get them to fall early on. In fact, his only first-half basket was a reverse layup off a pass from Siva for Louisville’s first points.
The co-captain finally broke through with 11:46 remaining in the game, making one from the right side to give the Cardinals a 48-32 lead. He finished 2 of 9 from outside for eight points.
“I don’t mind taking a lot of three’s with the exception of Luke,” Pitino said. “He turned down about five (shots), that’s no good. I told Luke you’ve got to have Russ’ mentality. Where every shot to him is a chance to score, you can’t be thinking about it because you miss a few.”
Louisville used 11 of 13 players available against Masiello’s Manhattan squad that has adopted Pitino’s tough defensive philosophy. The Cardinals committed only 12 turnovers and controlled the inside.
The Cardinals got solid defensive play from sophomore center Zach Price, calling him into action quickly after Gorgui Dieng picked up two quick fouls in the first half.
Harrell, meanwhile, showed some of the promise expected, stealing the ball near midcourt and driving for Louisville’s second basket and muscling underneath for a layup later on to provide a 17-5 lead.