University of Louisville junior guard Russ Smith is just 6 feet tall and 165 pounds, but he is relentless. As a sophomore, Smith averaged 11.5 points per game and had a single-season school record 87 steals. The New York native got his junior season off to a big start with a 23 point, five steal effort in No. 2 UofL’s 79-51 win over Manhattan on Sunday.
After his freshman season, a season in which he battled a few injuries, seeing action in just 17 games, Rick Pitino tried to convince Smith to follow Cards assistant Steve Masiello to Manhattan University. Masiello was the Jaspers new head coach and it would be a homecoming for Smith. Instead Russ stayed in Louisville, and after bursting onto the scene during the team’s preseason trip to the Bahamas in August of 2011, Smith has emerged as a star. Pitino has nicknamed him “Russdiculous,” and has even named a horse after him.
KENT TAYLOR: Was there a time when you really thought you might have Russ at Manhattan?
STEVE MASIELLO: Yeah, he was coming to Manhattan. I thought we had him. I thought he was coming to Manhattan. Things weren’t working out too well, but Coach has an unbelievable way of, he did it with Edgar (Sosa), all the sudden he tells guys to leave and they become terrific.
TAYLOR: What does Russ Smith mean to this team?
RICK PITINO: Russ is tremendous because he’s unguardable. The only thing he really has to improve on is blocking his guy out and getting loose rebounds and off-the-ball defense. He is always looking for the steal, always. You see his eyes get bigger and bigger and bigger as the guy is dribbling.
Russ was the key to the team last year. If you take him out of the lineup last year, you don’t win a Big East Championship, you don’t go to a Final Four. Somebody asked me the question the other day, who is more valuable Gorgui (Dieng) or Peyton (Siva), I said, ‘I have no idea.’ Who is the guy you can’t win without? ‘Russ Smith.’ He gives you a dimension that most teams don’t have, he’s unguardable and then he turns around and he’s the all-time steal leader in the history of our school, for one year. On the ball offensively and on the ball defensively, he’s pretty darn good.
TAYLOR: How close were you to going to Manhattan?
RUSS SMITH: Honestly I know everyone there. I know “Mas,” my dad knows him well, but I never even really considered it. To be serious, we’ve had talks about it, obviously Coach and the staff, but I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to leave. I’ve never left anywhere, from high school to prep school to AAU. When it was time to go, when I felt like a better opportunity was there, I went to another AAU team and stayed there. Making some stability, keeping a home is in the best interest for my career.
TAYLOR: To score 23 points in the season opener, plus five steals, are you happy with that start?
SMITH: It’s pretty decent, but I didn’t rebound though. So you have to come in the next game, grab a few boards, help the big guys out, and hopefully coach won’t bother me anymore.
TAYLOR: Coach Pitino called you “the one guy you can’t win without.” Has he told you yet that he’s glad that you didn’t go to Manhattan?
SMITH: It just means that I have to work hard. We have a great unit, and we all play off each other. If it wasn’t for Peyton, or Chane (Behanan) or Gorgui, there wouldn’t be an us. If it wasn’t for the whole team as a cohesive unit, there wouldn’t be an us. I just try to work hard everyday.
TAYLOR: When you get the first steal on a guy, can you sense some blood in the water, that a guy is getting frustrated?
SMITH: It depends on the steal – like if I take the ball directly from somebody, rather than a passing lane steal, then maybe, but if I take the ball directly from you and I can see your mood swing, then it kind of gives me more energy. I kind of take great pride in that.
SMITH: I feel like it did. One of the steals I caught, and I got fouled, I just smelled it and I wanted the ball every time from them.
TAYLOR: Are you worried at all about the three-point shooting on this team?
SMITH: It’s gonna go in when it needs to go in. Everybody is a big time player, we’re at this level and pretty much I don’t believe in off nights. When it’s time to hit a shot, Luke (Hancock) is going to make that shot. I have complete faith in him. Wayne (Blackshear) is going to make the shot, Peyton is. We did it last year and we have proven before that that we can hit big shots. I don’t see our shooting as an issue.
TAYLOR: Is it fair to say that your performance in the Bahamas last year opened Coach Pitino’s eyes to what you could do for a team?
SMITH: Definitely, but as I get older, I realize like how much of a hard deal it is for Coach to really have faith in a player. The Bahamas was more like, alright he can score against those guys, but can I trust him? Does he do this, can he do this against a Pittsburgh or a Villanova? It just opened his eyes a little bit, but I still had to prove myself throughout the whole year.
TAYLOR: Do you like the name Russdiculous?
SMITH: I like it, it sticks and everyone loves it. It’s a popular name now, so I love it. The horse is pretty good.