By DOM AMORE, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
7:47 PM EST, March 7, 2014
LOUISVILLE — Before he was driving Rick Pitino crazy, before he was a national champion, before he was "Russ-diculous," Russ Smith was up in Connecticut's Northwest hills grappling with math, trying to get noticed.
"You could never tell if he was in a good mood or a bad mood," South Kent School basketball coach Kelvin Jefferson said. "He was always walking around campus with a big smile, brightening everyone's day. Everybody just loved him."
Much has changed for Russ Smith, who is finishing up what will be a long-remembered college career — even by Kentucky's high standards — as No. 11 Louisville faces No. 19 UConn at the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday in the last game of the regular season.
"He's made it a lot of fun for me," Pitino said. "He makes me laugh all the time. Even though he's a first-team All-American, he doesn't act like an All-American. Although he likes the limelight, he really enjoys it, he never acts spoiled in any way at all."
Smith was a high scorer at Archbishop Molloy High in New York, averaging 29.6 points as a senior, scoring 47 twice. His friends include Kemba Walker, Doron Lamb, Tobias Harris. But he was 5 feet 10 and about 135 pounds and was not heavily recruited, "underestimated my whole life," he said. He visited South Kent and chose to go there for a year to get stronger, work on his academics and learn the point guard position.
"I felt like it meant a lot," Smith said. "Coach Jefferson helped me out. He made sure everything I did was professional. He made sure I was on time. I got qualified there. I was a pretty smart student, but he made the time for me, made sure I got a math tutor and I did math for maybe two months straight and I passed SATs. He helped me become a man, and I needed that."
Smith helped South Kent to a 20-12 record, averaging 19.7 points, 3.9 assists.
"In high school, he was a great scorer," Jefferson said. "He felt he needed to learn the point guard position. He used to have what I called blackouts, where he couldn't see anything on the court but the rim."
Louisville assistants Steve Masiello and Ralph Willard came to South Kent to look at someone else, but told Pitino that this undersized guard would be perfect for his style of play. Smith, who is now 6-1, 165, earned a starting job by the middle of his sophomore year, averaging 11.5 points as the Cardinals went to the Final Four. Last season, with Peyton Siva still at the point, Smith averaged 18.7 points. He was most outstanding player in the Midwest Regional, then scored 21 against Wichita State, but went 3-for-16 in the Cardinals' win over Michigan in the championship game.
Not satisfied with what he was hearing about the NBA draft, he returned to Louisville for his senior season and was the preseason player of the year in the American Athletic Conference. Pitino urged him to improve his assists-to-turnover ratio and his shot selection and shooting percentage.
Done. In the first category, Smith improved from 116-108 to 135-81. In the second, he has improved from 35.6 percent as a sophomore to 46.8 percent as a senior.
"He's done everything we've asked — in a big way," Pitino said. "Russ has an ego, but it's the right kind of ego. It's not where I say, 'The ego is edging out greatness.' Russ always wants to prove something."
And to the NBA, Smith would say, "If you want a winner, I mean, who would you look at but a winner? Those are facts."
As some of his high school teammates arrived from New York to see Smith honored Saturday for senior day, he apologized for not maturing earlier. "I apologized for the way I played in high school," Smith said. "I didn't realize how much of a detriment I might have been to the growth of our high school team."
Smith is averaging 18 points as Louisville (25-5) is poised for another postseason run. He scored 23 in the Cardinals' win at UConn on Jan. 18, and Shabazz Napier scored 30. On Saturday, there will be yet another duel of league and national player-of-the-year candidates. The Huskies (24-6) have lost seven of the past eight meetings with Louisville, five of six in Smith's career. The winner of this game figures to significantly improve its NCAA Tournament position.
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