INDIANAPOLIS -- Just forget it.
If Russ Smith plays like this for the next 10 days, Rick Pitino can write another one of those “Success” books over the summer, stopping in Lexington and driving by Cal's house and honking with the championship trophy in the passenger seat, just because he can.
With this defense and the supporting cast, forget about it.
Louisville is having its way in this tournament not because of Russdiculous, but because of a relatively steady guard named Russ Smith who kept Louisville's lead over Oregon manageable despite Peyton Siva's first-half foul trouble.
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Smith is taking less stupid shots now than he did a year ago. Oh, some of his shots are still very stupid. But they go in. He can make them. So, hoist.
One-on-threes, size in the paint, it didn't matter -- Smith slithered through the lane for 31 points on 9-of-16 shooting as the lead contortionist in the Circus de Soleil-ups.
When a 41.6 percent shooter on the year is making more than 55 percent of his shots in three tournament games for 81 points, you feed the beast. That's what Louisville is doing.
“He's playing like the tournament MVP,” said Siva after the 77-69 win in the Sweet 16.
A sick MVP, that is. Smith and Siva were sick before the game -- not throwing-up sick, according to forward Chane Benahan, but really weak and struggling. Siva said he had strep.
What's the solution for the off day while preparing for the Elite Eight against either Michigan State or Duke?
“Maybe we'll keep him outside tonight,” Siva said. “Keep him sick.”
Oregon, which was just as hot in the second half, wouldn't go away. If the Ducks hadn't started so tentatively in the first few minutes, giving up 20 points in the paint with time left in the first half, maybe this game would have let March Madness do its thing with last-second heroics. Oregon was making nearly 60 percent of its shots for much of the second half.
But twice when Oregon crept within eight points, Russ Smith answered with driving, well-contested 8-footers on the next possession. A contested shot is a comfort shot for Smith.
“We never got him slowed down,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said.
In one five-possession sequence in the second ahlf, Smith had his hands in everything, for better or worse: floater, on-ball block, turnover, turnover. But the Cardinals will take a few miscues (four turnovers overall Friday) when they are offset by instant offensive bailouts.
With Siva out for 15 minutes of the first half, Smith went into artist improvisation mode.
“We kind of had to make things up as we played,” Smith said. “In transition I try to get where I can.”
Kevin Ware also helped the cause with a driving floater to stave off another mini Ducks surge.
Teammates did the rest, getting most of the 50/50 stuff and outmuscling Oregon even without much suffocation from the vaunted press. Altman said earlier in the week that staying below 15 turnovers would give Oregon a chance. The Ducks had 12. It wasn't enough.
Pitino is clearly riding the hot hand. Peyton Siva is the more experienced guard and in many ways the heart and soul of Louisville. Shot blocker Gorgui Dieng has missed two shots in three games. Ware, a reserve guard, provided a nice lift with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting Friday. Louisville has about six different options it can go to.
But if Louisville maximizes its enormous potential, Smith will be the catalyst. Louisville is the last No. 1 seed left, which proves having a ruthless scorer in crunch time is crucial. Over in Arlington, No. 1 seed Kansas folded against Michigan with inefficient play down the stretch. Michigan's Trey Burke is ruthless. He has no problem taking a 30-footer in the final seconds and draining it. And so Michigan, which might be the biggest threat to Louisville, advances.
Pitino likes his chances with what he's called a poor man's Allen Iverson -- a guy who can create with seconds left on the shot clock.
Smith should have been the Big East player of the year, Pitino said.
Luckily for Pitino, his guard has another MVP to win.