Russ Smith’s return makes Louisville a real threat to repeat as champs

No matter where Russ Smith went the past couple weeks, the Louisville guard could not escape the question.

"It was a lot of attention I didn't really want," Smith admitted. "I'd go out to eat and they'd be like, 'Alright, your bill is such and such. Are you coming back?'"

It took plenty of sleepless nights and long conversations with his family and coach Rick Pitino, but Smith can finally answer that question with certainty. Since he wasn't a surefire first-round pick and he's in no rush to leave Louisville, he announced at a press conference Wednesday afternoon that he's delaying his NBA dreams for one more year and coming back for his senior season.

"Obviously I wasn't a clear-cut first-round pick, so coming back for me was because of coach, my teammates, the Louisville campus and community and graduating," Smith said. "I never really got an official goodbye, so that stuck with me. I want to do senior night. There were just a lot of things as a person that I want to do."

Whether Smith made a shrewd decision or not depends on if it is viewed strictly through the prism of his draft stock or not.

It will be challenging for Smith to prove to NBA scouts he's worth a first-round pick and a guaranteed contract simply because there isn't a huge market for 6-foot-1 shooting guards. Smith can help himself by improving his assist-to-turnover ratio and his outside shot, but he won't be able to prove to NBA scouts he's a point guard because either junior college transfer Chris Jones or incoming freshman Terry Rozier will likely inherit Peyton Siva's role.

Even if Smith turns out to be a second-round pick again next season, however, it's a fairly safe bet he won't regret his decision to return to school. He'll have another year with teammates and coaches he clearly enjoys. He'll get to experience senior night and earn his diploma. And he'll have a chance to leave a legacy unmatched at Louisville as he attempts to lead the Cardinals to a third straight Final Four and a second consecutive national championship.

If it's still unclear whether Smith's decision was wise from a personal standpoint, there's no doubt it's cause for celebration for Louisville and for college basketball.

Smith's return makes the Cardinals a leading contender to repeat as national champions, a feat only Florida (2006-07) and Duke (1991-92) have pulled off since the days of John Wooden's UCLA dynasty. Only Kentucky and its newest star-studded recruiting class has a realistic case to be ranked ahead of Louisville in the preseason polls.

Louisville will be loaded on the perimeter with Smith, Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear and perhaps Kevin Ware on the wings and Jones and Rozier combining to run the point. Gorgui Dieng's departure leaves a void in the middle, but Chane Behanan will be back at power forward and Montrezl Harrell showed enough flashes of promise as a shot blocker and rebounder to suggest he may be ready for an increased role.

The fact Louisville and Kentucky could easily begin the season in the top two spots in the polls sets up an intriguing storyline heading into next season. How much fun will one of college basketball's fiercest rivalries be when it features college basketball's last two national champions, both of whom will have title-or-bust mentalities again this season?

Of course, there are other contenders outside the Bluegrass State too. Michigan State and Michigan return key underclassmen capable of spearheading a title push. Arizona also will be a threat if its young frontcourt players develop. And few teams will have the caliber of perimeter talent Duke boasts next season.

But Louisville won't fear any of those teams. With Smith returning and an array of young talent ready to take larger roles next season, the Cardinals will again be a factor in the national title picture.