PHOENIX — The scrawny, maddening star of Louisville’s journey to the Final Four has a nail-biting problem. It’s just one of the many Russ Smith habits that drive Louisville coach Rick Pitino up the wall, but it’s one that the coach took extreme measures to curtail. Earlier this season he asked trainer Fred Hina to purchase a product that typically prevents babies from sucking their thumbs — it’s called Thum — and paint it on Smith’s nails for certain practices, so he’d be less distracted during his coach’s lectures. “He’s always yelling, ‘Russ! Get your fingers out of your mouth!’” said Smith. “But I can’t help it sometimes, and the taste is so nasty — like oil and hot peppers — that it stays in my mouth for 10 minutes.”
Smith told this story as if it were nothing out of the ordinary; in the same manner, he explained that he was up until 2 a.m. on the night before the Cardinals’ Elite Eight game against Florida, “doing push ups and listening to music” while his roommate, center Gorgui Dieng, tried to sleep. This is because nothing the wiry, 6-foot guard from Briarwood, N.Y., does is ordinary: He overflows with so much nervous energy that Pitino likes to say Smith makes coffee nervous.
When Smith comes off the bench for the Cardinals — he averages 21.3 minutes per game as a sixth or seventh man — he makes so many ridiculous plays, positive and negative, that Pitino has nicknamed him “Russ-diculous.” Smith shoots just 35.5 percent from the field while using a team-high 32.5 percent of possessions when he’s on the floor, and he’s second in the nation in steal percentage at 6.3. Mark Lieberman, Louisville’s director of basketball operations, said Smith “is the most unconventionally productive player I’ve ever seen.”
Louisville plays Smith because it’s so offensively challenged that it needs his off-the-bounce creativity, and his ball-pressure is perfect for Pitino’s defense. Pitino will scream at Smith for ill-advised shots (he was just 13-of-54 in the six games leading up to Saturday), and will put up with Smith giving him bunny ears on national TV (as he did in the postgame interview after winning the Big East tournament), because there are times when the Cardinals need Smith to rescue them. There are times, such as in their improbable, 72-68 comeback win over the Gators, when they have no choice but to unleash his nervous energy, and live or die with the ball in Russ Smith’s hands.
No. 4-seeded Louisville, which revived its season by winning four straight games in the Big East tournament, then locked down on Davidson, New Mexico and No. 1 seed Michigan State in the NCAA’s West Regional, looked as if it would die in the desert. If the Cardinals’ situation wasn’t dire enough when they went into halftime down 41-33, after allowing the Gators to make 8-of-11 three-point attempts against a matchup zone, it looked even worse with 10:56 left in the game. That was when sure-handed point guard Peyton Siva was whistled for his fourth foul; Pitino earned a dubious technical from referee Karl Hess while yelling at Siva, not Hess; and Erving Walker made four straight free throws to give Florida a 58-47 lead.
Louisville’s defense, which ranked No. 1 in the nation in efficiency, was getting lit up by Billy Donovan’s screening-and-gunning Gators. The Pitino protegé was on the verge of beating his mentor for the first time in seven tries. The Cards weren’t getting any help from the refs, and their offense didn’t seem to have the firepower to keep up with Florida’s three-point pace. Freshman forward Chane Behanan, from his vantage point on the bench, began to lose hope. “To be honest,” he said, “I thought it was over after that.”
Normally reserved senior forward Kyle Kuric gathered the team around him, including Smith, and tried to refocus them on getting defensive stops. They would do that, by switching to a stingy, switching man-to-man that held the Gators to 0-for-9 from long range in the second half. But what happened first was an explosion of Russ Smith offense: five quick points on a jumper and layup-with-foul that cut the lead to 60-52. At the 6:40 mark, he assisted* on a Behanan jumper to shrink Florida’s lead to six; then Smith hit a three with 5:40 left and a runner at the 4:59 mark to make it a one-point game, at 65-64. Pitino said that Smith “has bailed us out of more situations this year with his play,” and this was yet another one. In a few Russ Smith moments, an out-of-hand game turned into a thriller, and Florida looked ready to choke away a double-digit, second-half advantage in the Elite Eight for the second straight season.
(* Russ Smith is not a big assist guy — he averages 11.4 points and just 2.0 assists — but there is a wonderful story about him from an early February practice: After making a scrimmage-winning dish, Smith yelled out, “Nice pass, Russ!” When Pitino admonished him, he said, “I just wanted to beat my teammates to the punch.” Behanan speculated that Smith did it “because nobody else was going to do it for him. They’re too shocked when he passes the f—ing ball.”)
Shortly after that, disaster struck for Louisville. A ball-screen switch forced the 6-foot Siva to guard 6-foot-9 Gators power forward Patric Young, and Siva picked up his fifth foul in the post. There was 3:58 left in the game, and the reality of the situation hit Smith: He was going to have to take over at point guard, with a trip to the Final Four on the line. It was enough to make him start biting his nails again. “I’ve never felt more nervous in my life,” he said. Smith remembers two things: Siva getting in his ear during the stoppage in play and telling him to “hold it down and stay calm,” and Smith thinking to himself, “Don’t take a bad shot.”
But Smith could not restrain himself from being himself. On the Cardinals’ next possession, while trailing by two with 3:30 left, Smith drove to the basket and forced a flailing shot — and when the ball fell back into his hands, he forced another. Asked about those decisions, Smith could only shrug and say, “It happens.”
Luckily, the rebound from his second shot went out of bounds off the Gators, and Behanan, who was a life-saver in his own right with 13 second-half points, bailed Smith out with a nifty move under the hoop on the ensuing play, tying the game.
To reinforce Pitino’s line from a Portland press conference, about how coaching Smith is like being on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Smith proceeded to commit turnovers on two of Louisville’s next four possessions. The second one occurred with 21 seconds left and a one-point lead, when Smith drove baseline, left his feet, had no one to pass to, and just lofted the ball into the hands of Florida’s Bradley Beal.
It was a play that could have cost the Cardinals the game and a trip to the Final Four. It had Louisville fans everywhere yelling “Russ!” in disbelief, for perhaps the 500th — and last — time this season. It had Pitino’s mouth agape on the sideline, and then …
Pitino is accustomed to Russ-diculousness. He met Smith when he was a Brooklyn seventh-grader attending a Louisville summer camp, and offered him a scholarship as a marginally recruited prep schooler. He took a gamble on a fellow New Yorker, knowing that coaching Smith would not be easy, but that he might develop into an asset in a pressure system. Because Smith has developed — to a degree — Pitino has tolerated the absurdities. Like the day in practice this season when he was alternating between shouting at Smith and sending him to the treadmill as punishment. “He was just very unhappy,” Smith said. “It got to the point where he was in my face yelling, and I was like, ‘Alright, coach, alright coach. What I could really use now is a hug.’
“And everyone was just like, ‘What?’ He looked at me with a shocked face, and so I just gave him a hug and walked away. And he didn’t yell at me for the rest of practice.”
Who else but Russ-diculous could get away with that? And who else but Russ-diculous could have this happen in the immediate aftermath of his turnover: Beal, instead of calling timeout or driving upcourt, shuffled his feet and traveled, giving the ball back to the Cardinals, and Smith was fouled on the inbounds. He went to the line with 17.8 seconds left, showing no sign of nerves — “I was only thinking about winning,” he said — and drilled two free throws to give them a 71-68 lead. Those were the last of his 19 points in just 22 minutes of play. His roommate, Dieng, then blocked a Beal layup, Kenny Boynton missed a three, and Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear sealed the game with another free throw, giving Louisville its ninth Final Four trip of all-time and second under Pitino.
After the buzzer, who else but Smith made the wildest sprint around the floor? He jumped into the arms of program assistant (and ex-Cardinal guard) Andre McGee, who lifted Smith into the air while he screamed, “LET’S GO! LET’S GO!!” — to New Orleans, one had to presume. Smith later made his way over to Pitino, who smiled and reached out his arms to his favorite problem child, belatedly returning that hug. There were no nerves left for Smith to fry, and there was no nail-biting in that scene. Just the joy of victory and the ecstasy of relief.