published Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

University of Louisville 'Russdiculously' talented

  • photo
    Louisville's Russ Smith, right, drives around Memphis' Joe Jackson during an NCAA college basketball game.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Around the University of Louisville basketball program this year, the top scorer is referred to as "Russdiculous."

To understand why, we take you to the minutes immediately following the Cardinals' 80-77 victory over Kentucky 11 days ago and the subsequent banter that emerged from Cardinals coach Rick Pitino and guard Russ Smith, who had just led the win with 21 points:

Pitino: "[Smith is] sedated in the asylum for most of the day. We let him out at 4 o'clock and then he's got to be back by 8. Today he left the sedation about 2 o'clock, so he's out of his freakin' mind."

Smith: "It's true. I stay in my dark cave with the straitjacket on -- sedated, tranquilized. When it's time for practice [or a game], Fred [Hina, the trainer] walks in there, rips the straitjacket off me, wakes me up, gives me a shot and I'm good to go. Then I go right back to the cave."

Told that Pitino also said he was from another planet, Smith said, "Mars. The flight is only 30 minutes."

Welcome to the 2013 edition of the Looneyville Cardinals, 7-1 favorites in Las Vegas to reach the Final Four, a comedy club near you or both.

Smith and his 20.1 scoring average are clearly not the only reasons Pitino's 12th Louisville team stands 13-1 overall and No. 3 in the latest Associated Press poll heading into Wednesday night's visit to Big East foe Seton Hall.

As with most of Pitino's best teams over the years, this one is deep, talented, versatile and a defensive monster, averaging more than 11 steals and 20 forced turnovers a game, a major reason the Cards' average margin of victory is 20.9 points.

How impressive is that against the rest of the college game? When Louisville came from 16 down to win at Memphis, the Cards forced 24 turnovers. In Tennessee's home loss to the Tigers last Friday, the Volunteers' vaunted defense forced 10.

Louisville's only loss to date was 76-71 to No. 1 Duke, and veteran 6-foot-11 post player Gorgui Dieng sat out that game with an injury.

"I don't know what their [defensive] weaknesses are," said Manhattan coach Steve Masiello, a former Kentucky player and Louisville assistant whose team was blitzed by the Cards earlier this season.

"Their size, their length is unbelievable. Russ and Peyton [Siva] were nightmares [at guard]. ... Then you have Gorgui in the back; Chane [Behanan] and [freshman reserve] Montrezl [Harrell] are giving them quality minutes. There's no let-off, and that's what makes them so special."

Masiello is on the money. With a senior point guard in Siva who's scoring 12 a game and handing out six assists, with Dieng blocking nearly three shots a game and altering close to twice that many, with the 250-pound Behanan hitting fadeways from 17 feet, this is almost certainly Pitino's most balanced Louisville squad, and he's taken two other Cardinals teams to Final Fours (2005 and 2012).

But it all centers on Smith, whom Pitino barely recruited out of New York City and who almost left midway through his freshman year.

"We were playing West Virginia," he said. "I told my mom I was coming home right after the game. My bags were packed. I didn't even put my compression shorts on [under his game shorts]. I was wearing boxers."

But with the Cards in a double-digit hole in the second half, Pitino put him in. His energy helped deliver a victory. He decided to stick around.

"He was coming to Manhattan," said Masiello, who had been Smith's chief recruiter for Louisville. "Things weren't working out too well; then all of a sudden [Pitino] tells guys to leave and they become terrific. I'm going to start doing that."

Pitino has grown to like Smith so much that the coach has named one of the racehorses he owns Russdiculous.

"There's not a player I believe I've enjoyed coaching more than him," the coach said after the Kentucky game.

As this season moves forward, there may also not be a player opposing coaches will like facing less than the Martian Russdiculous. Especially when he's not sedated.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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