ATLANTA — On Saturday night, we got a glimpse of Russ Smith in all his glory.
His dizzyingly-talented, frustratingly inconsistent glory.
He shot 6-17 from the floor. He was 5-12 from the free throw line, missing the first four free throws of the game and two of six in the final minute, which left the door open for the Shockers down the stretch. He had four first half turnovers and five on the game. He played as terribly as he had all season long for about the first 10 minutes of the game, but he never stopped attacking. He never stopped being aggressive. He never hesitated when he saw a gap in the Wichita State defense or had space on the perimeter to fire up a three.
That’s who he is. That’s Russdiculous.
“I stay aggressive. I don’t change my game for anything,” Smith said on Sunday. “We had two games left. If I keep the same game-plan and play the same way, eventually the shots are going to go in. That’s the way I feel.”
And it paid off for the Cardinals on Saturday. Smith finished with 21 points and made some key plays late in the first half to keep Wichita State from pulling away, and his defense was a major factor in Malcolm Armstead’s nightmare performance. Armstead was 1-8 from the floor last night.
That’s what you get when Smith plays.
And it’s taken a while for Pitino to learn that, to learn that Smith isn’t going to change.
“I don’t even bother [yelling at him] because he doesn’t listen to a word I say,” Pitino said.
But here’s the thing: he has. As out of control as Smith has looked at times this season, as crazy as some of those shots that he took last night appeared to people that hadn’t watched Smith play at all this season or in his three years at Louisville, he’s dialed it down this year. He’s making better decisions. He doesn’t shoot the ball every time he touches it this year. He’s making better decisions. He’s becoming more efficient. That’s why he’s an all-american as a junior after a sophomore campaign where he was more of a sideshow than an NBA Draft prospect and a freshman season where he played so few minutes Smith nearly transferred.
He had his bags packed, but a teammate convinced him to show up for a January 26th game against West Virginia. Smith had regular boxers on instead of compression shorts. He wasn’t taped up. Instead of his wearing multiple pairs of socks, he had on just one pair. He happened to play nine minutes that night, but if he didn’t, who knows what would have happened.
Perhaps more than anything else, the reason for Smith’s development has been Pitino’s acceptance that Russ is always going to be Russ. He understands that, on the whole, Smith does more good than bad. Trying to control him isn’t going to make him a better player. You can channel that aggressiveness and eliminate some of the worst shots, but taking away Smith’s aggressiveness would nullify his usefulness.
Pitino gets that.
Barely in control just the way that Russ plays.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.