Rick Pitino loves Russ Smith so much that he named a horse after his guard.
The coach’s obsession with the player is not ungrounded, of course. Smith averaged 11.5 points and 2.2 steals per game as a sophomore, leading Louisville on several occasions — including but not limited to tournament wins over New Mexico and Florida. He even exploded for 20-plus points five times.
But with the good comes the bad.
Just as quickly as he can ignite a run, Smith can extinguish one. He likes any shot on the floor, even if it is an unadvisable one, and won’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
Overall, Smith shot 35.6 percent from the floor and 30.6 percent from long range. His risky, questionable decision-making manifested itself in 2.3 turnovers in 21.5 minutes per game.
Smith and inconsistency are seemingly inseparable. But Louisville losses don’t always correlate with his cold streaks. In fact, Smith played some of his best games in defeats — for example, his 30-point effort on New Year’s Eve against Kentucky. When he’s hot, he can keep the Cardinals in games.
But when he’s cold? Louisville’s chances are definitely compromised.
Smith shot 3-for-11 in a four-point loss to Cincinnati. He went 0-for-8 in a seven-point loss to South Florida. And at Syracuse on Mar. 3, he shot 5-for-14 but 0-for-6 from deep, and the Cardinals fell by nine.
Everyone is prone to an off night. But Smith is more susceptible than most.
The Cardinals have a lot of talent, so a Smith off night won’t automatically preclude them from winning. But the duo of Smith and Peyton Siva in the backcourt will need to collectively improve decision-making — on shots, passes, defense — if Louisville wants to repeat its deep tournament run.
Either way, Pitino will live with Smith’s erratic disposition because the guard can be one of the Big East’s best catalysts.
He’ll take the good with the bad.
And, hopefully for the Cardinals, Smith will provide more good than bad.
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