LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Russ Smith holds occasional tea parties with fans at a Louisville Waffle House. He puts sugar in his grits and eggs. His Instagram account depicts him as a benevolent ruler called BasedKing. He occasionally wears a hat with a picture of Stewie from "Family Guy" and his catchphrase, VICTORY SHALL BE MINE. Once, in a timeout, when coach Rick Pitino was raging at the team, Smith came over and gave the coach a hug.
Russ Smith leads Louisville in scoring with 18 points a game. He's on the front line of the Cardinal press that harasses opponents into 19 turnovers a game. Stats guru Ken Pomeroy's formula says Smith is the best player in college basketball this season.
For so many students, the last year or two of college is when their loose lives have to tighten up. One of the hardest things to do is preserving the weird essence of yourself (understanding we are all weird in our own ways) while learning to mature and adapt to the bigger world. Because of Smith's looseness, on the court and off, Pitino gave him the nickname Russdiculous. It still fits. But he's a little less Russdiculous than he used to be. And because of that, he has become the most important player on the favorite to win the national title.
Louisville plays the transition game, and Russ Smith is in transition.
Nobody really wanted him. He averaged 30 points a game as a senior at Archbishop Molloy High School -- the Queens school that produced NBA players Kenny Smith and Kenny Anderson. Thirty a game at Archbishop Molloy is normally an E-pass onto a major college team. But coaches saw how many shots he took to get all those points. They also saw a scrawny kid, 140 pounds, maybe 6 feet on tiptoes. Two Louisville assistants had shown up earlier in Smith's high-school career to recruit another player. One of the assistants -- Ralph Willard, a longtime member of Pitino's staff -- liked Smith better. Pitino remembered Smith from his basketball camp. Really? he said to Willard. That little guy?
So Pitino called Smith.
"He lied to me," Pitino said, telling the story the other day. "He named all these schools that were recruiting him, made up schools… I said, 'Now tell me the truth, you don't have a scholarship, do you?' 'Oh, kind of not really, Coach.'"
Pitino signed him anyway. And for most of the next year, both of them regretted it.
"He wouldn't play a stitch of defense, wouldn't pass the ball, didn't really understand the game," Pitino said. Besides that, he got hurt twice. Smith ended up playing just 17 games as a freshman and averaged 2.2 points. Pitino made him give up Twitter, probably around the time he tweeted that he was about to have a bowel movement. Midway through the season, he decided to quit the team -- even packed up his stuff. His roommate talked him out of it.
Pitino had been telling Smith all along that he had to change his game. Pitino had been a big scorer in high school, too, back at St. Dominic's on Long Island. But his team didn't win anything. Neither did Smith's team at Archbishop Molloy. You and I have got to become winners, Pitino said.
In his sophomore year he mostly came off the bench, but he averaged 12 points a game in 22 minutes. More than that, though, he worked on defense. He was third in the Big East in steals. He had 19 points in the win over Florida that sent Louisville to the Final Four. He still led the world in ill-advised 25-footers and 1-on-3 fast breaks. But there weren't as many as before.
"What's the team goals? What do we have to do to get to the next round?" Smith says. "If I didn't play defense, I wouldn't have been on the court… that was something I had to evolve into."
This year, as a junior, he had to become even more of an adult. Pitino made him a starter, gave him the green light to shoot, and put him with guard Peyton Siva at the tip of the Louisville press. He's shooting more but making a higher percentage (42 percent vs. 36 percent last season). He's not the floor leader -- that job belongs Siva, a senior -- but these days he rarely pulls the team backwards. Two weeks ago, at the Big East tournament in New York City, he called Archbishop Molloy to see if his old coach, Jack Curran, would come see him play. He found out Curran had died the night before. Smith cried for 45 minutes on the bus. That night he scored 28 against Villanova.
"In high school I just remember Coach telling me, when you get to this level you have to really focus, because you have trouble focusing," Smith said the other day.
Maybe that's the secret to growing up. Focus. Smith focused on the sadness. Then he focused on the game. And afterward, when Bill Clinton showed up in the locker room, Russdiculous focused on getting in the picture.
Now the kid who barely got a college scholarship is being touted for the NBA. You'd expect Pitino to talk up his guys, of course, and skinny 6-foot point guards don't exactly fill up NBA rosters. But here's what Pitino says about what Russ Smith has become:
"He picks up full court, he's always looking for a steal, off the ball he's denying, then he's running pick-and-rolls, then he's cutting, then he's scoring… He's going to be a really good NBA player because defensively and offensively with a 24-second shot clock, and what I call today an 18-second shot clock, that's what the pros are all about, a guy like Russ Smith is really hell."
But the NBA is later. Let's enjoy Russ Smith now. He's goofy and excitable, and these are good qualities. Why is everybody so jacked about Florida Gulf Coast? They look like they're having fun playing basketball. Basketball should be fun. Sports should be fun. And one of the most thrilling things in sports is seeing somebody have fun while, at the same time, being really good.
He had 23 points against North Carolina A&T and 27 against Colorado State in the tournament games at Rupp Arena. He also scored 30 at Rupp in a game against Kentucky last season. So a Twitter hashtag was born: #RussArena. At the end of the Colorado State game, Louisville fans turned it into a chant.
"I didn't really know too much of it," he said after the game.
Later, after Smith had left the interview room, Pitino brought it up.
"I can tell you, he knew all about Russ Arena, I can tell you that right now," Pitino said. "He's also learned humility."
Smith lit up Colorado State in the first half. He had 18 points and had already made four threes when he got the ball again behind the arc. He was guarded, but you could see the look in his eyes: Heat check. He fired and the shot airballed wide by a foot. Pitino started to shout. Instead he walked toward the far end of the bench. It looked for a second like he would keep walking into the Lexington night.
But then, early in the second half, Smith got loose on a fast break. For nearly his entire basketball life, this would have been a show: a dunk, or a circus layup, or something equally Russdiculous. But this time he fanned left, to create an angle, and bounced a perfect pass off the dribble to Siva cutting in from the right for a layup. Louisville was up 17, and that was pretty much the end of it.
Colorado State called timeout. And when Smith came to the Louisville bench, this time Pitino was the one to reach out for a hug.