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Pitino's 'Russdiculous' Cardinals are bonded by enigmatic player

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer
Pitino and Smith's relationship reflects the loose attitude and fun, unpredictable nature of this year's Cardinals team.(AP)

PHOENIX — If your coach is inventing an adjective named after you, it's probably a very good thing or a very bad thing.

For “Russdiculous” Russ Smith, it's both.

Despite playing 21.3 minutes per game for Louisville — the sixth-most on the team — Smith has a usage rate of more than 28 percent, the only Cardinals player who involves himself that much during a game. (Usage rate is determined by how often a player takes shots, free throws, earns assists and commits turnovers.) Rick Pitino would prefer Smith didn't crowbar himself into the offense that frequently, but the fact of the matter is, this sophomore Louisville guard has become the wild card that fans and Pitino have learned to love, embrace and accept as the unpredictable element in an enlightening Elite Eight season.

“He'll take more shots per second than anyone on our basketball team — times two,” Pitino said.

In a lot of ways, Smith a microcosm of what Louisville is, both with his play and the relationship he's developed with Pitino. The 59-year-old coach has said he's not enjoyed spending time with a team as much as this one since his days at Providence in the late '80s. He was giggling on the dais with his players after Louisville beat New Mexico in the Round of 32 last weekend. That affinity and lightheartedness starts with Smith, who is so comfortable around the sometimes-icy, often-sarcastic Pitino that he bunny-eared his coach after Louisville played its way into the Sweet 16.

“I'm that cool with coach,” Smith said of the spontaneous video bomb on national TV. “But he keeps saying he's going to get me back for that.”

For as uncontrollable and uncontainable as he is, Smith has put up 18 points in Louisville's past two NCAA games. The way he explains it, the team's this good and on the brink of getting Pitino to his sixth Final Four because there's a wide variety of personalities, plus “no on-the-court distractions.”

Except, you know, for him — for good or for bad. Louisville fans live for Smith's in-game avant-garde interpretations of basketball. They can lead to the sublime or the senseless. Watch during the Louisville-Florida game Saturday; we're almost guaranteed some sort of Russdiculous occurrence. Then the cameras will catch Pitino hopelessly screaming, “RUSS?!”

“I'm not getting after him because I know he can take it,” Pitino said. “I'm getting on him because he's Russdiculous. His shots are the most ridiculous shots any human being can take. There are two or three moments during a game where you just want to crawl underneath your chair because of what he did. I'm trying to get him to go from three to one per game. He does things that are absolutely crazy, no rhyme or reason.”

Yet Smith is finding himself in games during critical moments. He's had big plays against big-time opponents this year, like Louisville's wins over Vanderbilt, Memphis, at Marquette and at West Virginia. This kind of attention, playing time and playful perspective from Pitino wasn't anticipated by Smith last season, his freshman year.

“He's always yelling at me,” Smith said.

But it's the way he said it. “Yelling” sounds like “supporting.” There wasn't a negative connotation with the word. Just matter-of-fact. Smith said he's the punching bag, the verbal stress doll for Pitino in a game.

“If he's mad, I think I'm the first option,” Smith said. “Him yelling at me for not making the right passes or shots, that's definitely the least of my worries after what I went through last year.”

Smith had a non-factor of a freshman campaign. He suffered a broken right foot and tore his medial and lateral meniscus. Then his hip got sore. His right calf got tight frequently. The knuckles in his toes began to ache. Smith wasn't the player Pitino recruited. He wasn't effective and barely a contribution to the team. He wondered if he'd lose his scholarship.

Pitino didn't judge him, as he doesn't judge any freshmen his program.

This was a player Pitino knew since the seventh grade, when Smith attended one of his camps. For a long time, Pitino didn't believe he was anything close to a high-level D-I player. Jack Curran, the Hall of Fame coach from Molloy High School, didn't even think he could get through a season with Smith. This guy has been aging coaches for more than half a decade.

Smith's open-court ability and natural athleticism enabled him to let Pitino take a chance and keep a small school from stealing him. Once the surgery clipped his innate athleticism, Smith upped his creativity. That open-canvas play can now send Pitino into a befuddled, I don't know, would you even call it a rage? It's one big gobsmack for a coach who thought he'd seen almost every kind of player — until Smith came along.

And now Louisville's one game from getting to its first Final Four in seven years. There's a lot of components that have played into this run. None have been as fun as Smith's unprompted interpretations of New Age basketball, his old-school coaching taking turns loving him and hating him and learning more about his own affection for the player and the team as their season gets closer to its end.

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