Russ Smith is both playmaker and problem for Cards
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)
Yet, Pitino knows he can't win without his frenetic playmaker.
The sophomore is averaging 13.3 points in the NCAA tournament and his play will be pivotal when Louisville faces Kentucky in Saturday's rematch at the Final Four in New Orleans.
Smith scored 30 points in the Cardinals' 69-62 loss to the Wildcats on Dec. 31 - the most points any individual scored against Kentucky this season.
But Smith has mental lapses that raise Pitino's ire. Smith, often caught apologizing to his coach, sums up his play by saying he doesn't know why he does what he does.
Pitino coined another term for his inconsistency: ''Russdiculous.''
Smith's antics led Pitino to say during a Monday teleconference that Senegal native Gorgui Dieng is not the only foreign-born player on his roster.
''He's not from a different country,'' Pitino said of Smith, ''he's from a different planet.''
Smith has ably directed Louisville's offense for long stretches. At other times, he's been able to shoot himself straight to the bench.
Every time he's dribbling the ball it's a good bet something interesting is going to happen.
''It's just that you can't fathom what he's going to do when he takes you off the bounce,'' Pitino said. ''That's the difficult thing coaching him.''
Almost enough to make Pitino lose it.
After one game this season, he called coaching Smith the closest thing he's ever had to a nervous breakdown, and Smith is often seen apologizing to Pitino on the bench or after games.
''I take a lot of risks and I do a lot of things that maybe are questioned a lot, but I have total confidence in my abilities, so I guess that's most important,'' Smith said. ''I get like very, very hyped because I did do something good or something maybe that I should not have done, and then it'll work and then I'll know that coach is upset, but it was a positive, so we got a positive out of it, so coach is just satisfied that everything worked.
''But then again there's that play that if it don't work, it's just like, I'm going to the bench, I'm about to get destroyed.''
It's hard not to laugh at Smith, a 160-pound lightly-recruited prep school player who often has a big smile and loves to answer even the most mundane questions.
After Louisville advanced to the regional semifinals, Smith mugged for the cameras during Pitino's live shot on the arena floor and gave his coach bunny ears before Pitino finally pulled him to the side.
''He has a unique ability to score, but he has no clue how to play the game,'' Pitino joked. ''So the first thing we had to do is, `OK, Russ, let's go from eight ridiculous shots a game to five to three. Now let's get - because we're going to the Final Four, to one, two.' And he's done that. So he has bailed us out of more situations this year with his play.''
Another time in practice this year, Smith got a compliment on a pass he made during a scrimmage - from himself.
''All of sudden I hear, `Great pass, Russ!' And it's from Russ. He said, `Great pass,''' Pitino said. ''I yelled down, `Russ, you're not supposed to compliment yourself.' His response was hysterical. He said, `I just wanted to beat my teammates to the punch.' He has a way of just constantly loosening up the team, and he can even talk in the third person and it's funny.''
Teammate Kyle Kuric said he hardly noticed Smith's decision to compliment himself because it's so typical.
''I really didn't think anything of it,'' Kuric said. ''It really didn't register to anybody else until Coach said, `Russ, you can't compliment yourself.'''
He'll get compliments from other people if he can replicate his recent performances or his 30-point game against Kentucky.
Smith finished with 19 points in Louisville's 72-68 West Regional final victory over Florida, but also committed four of the Cardinals' six turnovers - including two in the final 2:25 after point guard Peyton Siva fouled out. The Gators couldn't convert either of them into points and Louisville held on to finish its memorable rally.
Florida coach Billy Donovan called Smith's play ''crazy'' with some of the things that he does on the court.
An endearing description? Certainly.
''If Coach Donovan calls me crazy,'' Smith said afterward, ''then I guess I am crazy.''
His next adventure awaits Saturday in New Orleans.