This week's issue of Sports Illustrated includes a feature on Louisville's Russ Smith, the recklessly endearing two-guard whom coach Rick Pitino nicknamed "Russdiculous" for his absurd (and often maddening) style of play. Smith has reined in his shot selection -- to a degree -- and emerged as an All-America candidate for the No. 5-ranked Cardinals. With their ever-important duel with Kentucky just a week away, here are 11 Russ Smith Facts that you need to know -- and won't find in the magazine:
1. His defensive value is immense. The Cardinals are the best turnover-creating team in the country, and SI's charting reveals that Smith personally creates turnovers on 8.3 percent of opponents' possessions:
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That's a higher amount than Ohio State's Aaron Craft (whom we had at 8.2 earlier this month). But what does it actually mean? Think of this way:
In an important game, Smith is likely to be on the floor for 30 minutes. That translates to about 53 possessions, which means he's likely to create turnovers on four or five of them. A good opponent, let's say Missouri, averages 1.38 points on their non-empty possessions -- those in which they get to take a shot or a make trip to the free-throw line. From that standpoint, Smith's forced turnovers prevent 5.5-6.9 points per game -- a not insignificant amount. Take that into consideration when drafting your All-America teams.
2. When he goes to Waffle House, which is quite often, this is what he does with his meal:
(I filmed that for posterity. When sugar grits-n-eggs blow up as a dish, you'll know who started it.)
3. His father, Big Russ, who owns the hoops-themed Big Russ Barbershop in Harlem, trained Russ to be an "offensive machine" from a very young age. When Big Russ wanted to gauge his son's progress, he would take him to courts around North Brooklyn, and, well ... I'll let Big Russ explain:
"This is when Russ was maybe six years old, and I wanted to see where his game was at. I'd take him to different parks and pick out some kid who was maybe eight or nine. And I'd say to him, 'Do me a favor. I'll give you a couple dollars. Play 1-on-1 against my son.' He'd kill these older kids and I'd be like, 'Damn.' You know when you see a ballplayer, and this kid's got something."
4. One secret to Smith's 19.6-points-per-game offensive breakout? He's finishing far more effectively at the rim. According to hoop-math.com's data, Smith has only made slight changes to his shot distribution -- taking fewer two-point jumpers in favor of threes -- but has seen a huge change in his field-goal percentage at rim. Last season, it was 53 percent; this season, it's 73 percent. That's a big part of why his offensive efficiency rating has jumped from 91.5 (not good) as a sophomore to 110.2 (very respectable, given his high usage rate) as a junior.
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5. He is college basketball's unofficial Christmas Elf. Louisville blog Card Chronicle Photoshopped a version of The Elf On The Shelf starring Smith (Russ On The Shelf), and Smith has been giving out virtual gifts from his Instagram account:
The gem on the left refers to his alter-ego, the BasedKing, whose subjects are fictional people from family albums or psychology textbooks that he finds in Google Images. Smith is a benevolent king. He also refers to the holiday date exclusively as "December Twenty Smiff":
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6. Smith has a hilarious, love-hate relationship with Pitino, but the coach who understood him best was Jack Curran, the 82-year-old legend for whom Smith scored 29.6 points per game as a senior at Queens' Archbishop Molloy High School.
"Coach Curran knew me in a way that nobody else did," Smith said. "He knew I was capable of taking some stupid shots, but he also knew all the cards I was holding, and he had faith in me. He said I played with great heart and passion."
Curran explained why Smith never maddened him the way he does Pitino:
"Russ never maddened me because he scored a lot of points. We don't get mad at those guys. As long as they put it in, they can shoot as much as they want. ... It's in his DNA: When he gets the ball, he thinks he's supposed to score. he really can't help himself with that."
"I watched Russ the other night at Louisville [a game against Miami of Ohio], and he looked much more disciplined than he usually does. So I think it's working with Pitino. Pitino is a good coach for him, because he'll scream and yell at him, and it won't bother Russ. He's good at making believe that he's listening."
7. A second secret to Smith's junior-year breakout: He's been generating a ton of free-throw attempts over the past few weeks. After averaging four shots from the line per 40 minutes early on, he ramped up his basket-attacking to an insane level, creating 12.4 FTA/40 in Louisville's past five games. Smith is impossible to contain off the dribble -- he's fast, with great handles, and completely unpredictable -- and has a knack for drawing contact in the air.
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8. Smith had an appropriately comical courtship with Louisville. When he was in high school at Archbishop Molloy and in a prep year at South Kent in Connecticut, one of the Cardinals' assistant coaches was Steve Masiello, who had been friends with Big Russ since he was 15. "It was the weirdest recruitment of my life," said Masiello, who's now the head coach at Manhattan. "[The younger] Russ is like a little brother to me, but I never took him seriously. He'd be like, 'Yo, Mass, I scored 30 in my last game,' and I'd be proud of him, but didn't see him as a prospect. I never even talked to coach Pitino about him."
It wasn't until Masiello took a recruiting trip with fellow assistant Ralph Willard to South Kent in September 2009 -- to see a different player -- that Louisville started looking at Smith. And that was only because Willard, and not Masiello, pointed out Smith and said he liked that little guard who would be perfect for their high-pressure system. As Masiello recalls, "I said to Ralph, 'You love Russ?'" After Pitino was sold on Smith, it Masiello's duty not to botch the recruitment, given his pre-existing relationship with the family. "I had to get the kid," Masiello says, "or all hell would have broken loose for me."
Smith, who had a standing offer from Baylor, wanted to play at Louisville so badly that he tried to commit before he even had an official scholarship offer. They had to tell him to wait until he could come to campus and meet Pitino.
9. Rick Pitino might call Smith "Russdiculous," and Smith might call himself the BasedKing (that's explained in the magazine), but his father had a different name for him as a kid: Tunafish. Says Big Russ:
"When Russ was really little, he did a dance where he shook his behind like a tunafish. So that's where it came from. I still use it, like, I'll say, 'Get your little tunafish behind outta here.' My mom actually used that nickname on me, too, so it got passed down. It's like a family tradition."
10. Smith explains why he is banned from Twitter by Louisville's coaches, and not able to Tweet edicts from the BasedKing:
"When I was on Twitter as a freshman, I was ridiculous. I was using profanity, just being all-out reckless. I would tweet at such a high rate, and so recklessly, that it was just like, 'Russ has to stop.' I got in trouble from Coach P so many times. ... I was injured, not playing, so it didn't even feel like I was part of the team yet -- I didn't think it would matter what I said. But the [coaches] printed out all my Tweets and showed me how bad they were, and after that it was no Twitter allowed."
Was there a specific Tweet that was a problem, I asked?
"No, not a specific one, it was just more the volume of them. But I guess I did once Tweet something like, 'Alright, I'm about to take a sh--.'"
11. A 1-for-7 game saved Smith's Louisville career. Seriously.
Smith was miserable during his freshman year due to struggles with injuries -- a torn meniscus in the offseason, and then a broken foot once he arrived at Louisville. When he started suiting up, he played so sparingly that by January 26, 2011, he decided to leave. It was the day of a home game against West Virginia, and after being excluded from yet another pre-game walkthrough, Smith interpreted it to mean he had no chance of playing that night. He went back to his dorm room, called his mom, Paulette O'Neal, to tell her he was coming back to New York, and packed up all of his belongings.
It was only because then-teammate Rakeem Buckles talked Smith out of it ("He said, 'Bro, don't leave like this'") that he even went to the game. I'll let Smith take over from here:
"The crazy thing is, I didn't even get fully dressed for it -- I had ankle socks on, and I normally play in three thick socks. I didn't have an undershirt. And instead of my normal compression shorts I was just wearing boxers. I was saying to myself, 'This is it, I'm going to sit through this game and then leave after.'
"But the team was playing bad against West Virginia and coach Pitino came to me at the end of the bench and said, 'You're going in. Go out and play hard, because no one is playing hard right now.' I was like, alright, every time I touch the ball, I'm going to do something. I think I was 2-for-8, with a few steals, a few rebounds, and we came back from down 11. I subbed out with three minutes left, everybody was happy, and we ended up winning by one on Peyton [Siva]'s layup at the buzzer. That was it, I stayed."
(Smith's actual box score line was 1-for-7 with one board, one steal, one turnover in nine minutes. Had he not been pulled off the bench that day to put up shots in his boxer shorts, he would be playing for some other school. Buckles, ironically, transferred to Florida International during this offseason.)