Russ Smith's decision to return to Louisville should make him Player of the Year candidate

The return of RussDiculous to the Louisville basketball program means a national title repeat is not a ridiculous premise.

Russ Smith’s decision to forgo the NBA draft should place the Cardinals solidly at No. 2 in the preseason rankings for 2013-14, behind obscenely loaded (but very young) rival Kentucky. With apologies to Tobacco Road, that also keeps the Bluegrass State firmly entrenched as the epicenter of college basketball.

It also should make Smith a preseason first-team All-American and early favorite for national Player of the Year by a narrow margin over Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State, Doug McDermott of Creighton and Mitch McGary of Michigan. (Freshmen candidates to be named later, when we actually get to see them play collegiately.)

Smith is that good. But he can get better, which is why he’s coming back.

At 6 feet (maybe) and 165 pounds (maybe), there is only one position for Smith in the NBA and that’s point guard. Russ has proved to be a very potent scoring guard, but has a lot to learn about playing point.

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Although Louisville has recruited an instant-impact point guard from the junior college ranks in Chris Jones, Smith will get more time at the point than he did last with the indispensible Peyton Siva in that role. He has to prove he can see something other than the rim when the ball is in his hands. Smith must show that he can penetrate and pass, that he can find teammates, that he can run a team, that he can improve his oft-shameless shot selection, and that he can be a team-first leader.

(It took a special group of teammates to tolerate some of Smith's Hero Ball antics the past two seasons.)

Improve in those areas and Smith will be a first-round pick in 2014. He likely would not have been this year.

Smith’s growth curve was almost vertical last year – he went from a hardheaded reserve to the leading scorer on a national championship team, and one of the best players in America. If he can improve again his senior year, the sky is the limit.

And Louisville will be a viable threat to the Wildcats. Not as talented, but much more experienced.

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The Cardinals are loaded at positions 1 through 4. They have Jones and Smith at the point, Smith and recruits Terry Rozier and Anton Gill at shooting guard, Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock and junior Wayne Blackshear at small forward, and Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell at power forward. If Kevin Ware comes back from his horrific broken leg, that’s one more key cog in the backcourt.

The question is center, where junior Gorgui Dieng is departing as a likely first-round draft pick. Fifth-year senior Stephan Van Treese, redshirt freshman Mangok Mathiang and freshman Akoy Agau can man the position by committee – or Pitino could go smaller and play with Behanan and Harrell inside.

As for Smith, he has the chance to join some elite company by coming back. No college player has been to three Final Fours, with at least one national title, since the Michigan State run from 1999-2001. Smith will have a chance to become a 2,000-point career scorer, something only three other Louisville players have accomplished, and should eclipse Siva as the school’s all-time steals leader.

No, he’s not going to grow taller between now and the 2014 NBA draft. But he can grow smarter as a distributor and stronger as a leader. That’s why the return of RussDiculous for his senior season is good not just for the Louisville Cardinals, but for Smith himself.

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