If Russ Smith still needs to prove to NBA scouts he can be a reliable point guard at the professional level, the Louisville senior might want to send video of the final 90 seconds of the Cardinals' thrilling 58-57 victory at Cincinnati.
No other sequence better typifies Smith's evolution from the reckless, untameable "Russdiculous" to the trustworthy playmaking guard spearheading Louisville's quest to return to the Final Four for a third straight season.
Having surrendered double-digit leads in both halves, Louisville trailed Cincinnati by three points with just over a minute remaining when Smith finally put his stamp on the game. The senior guard delivered assists on back-to-back possessions, the first when forward Montrezl Harrell cut to the rim off a pick-and-roll and the second when Smith drove to the rim off an isolation set and passed up a contested shot to dish to Harrell under the rim.
Cincinnati regained the lead when Troy Caupain sank a pair of free throws after drawing a hand checking foul with 12 seconds to go, but Smith had one final answer at the other end. When he didn't have a clean look after attacking off the dribble, he kicked out to Terry Rozier, got the ball back from his teammate and buried a high-arcing 16-foot jump shot over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-7 Titus Rubles to give Louisville a huge victory.
Smith's heroics helped Louisville (23-4, 12-2) avenge a previous home loss to Cincinnati and move within a half game of the Bearcats (24-4, 13-2) in the race for the inaugural American Athletic Conference title. The Cardinals also desperately needed this victory to bolster a resumé surprisingly short on quality wins.
Though Louisville boasted a gaudy record and a ranking as high as No. 5 in the nation in one of the two polls, the Cardinals' lone three top 100 RPI wins entering Saturday's game came at UConn and at home against SMU and Southern Mississippi. A win at Cincinnati provides another marquee road win, plus more chances remain to add to the list with road games at Memphis and SMU left as well as a home game against UConn.
The maturation of Smith will surely help the Cardinals take advantage of some of those opportunities and continue to build a case for a top-three NCAA tournament seeding.
A potential second-round pick had he left school last spring after leading Louisville to a national championship, Smith returned to school in hopes of showing NBA scouts that he could play point guard. Sharing time with Chris Jones at the position, Smith has increased his assists to 4.5 per game and increased his accuracy from the field to 46.2 percent while not allowing either his scoring output to drop off or his turnover averages to increase.
Saturday's visit to Cincinnati actually hadn't been one of Smith's better performances until the final 90 seconds. He finished with 10 points, five assists, three steals and one turnover, but it was the combination of Harrell's dominance at the rim and the relentless pressure of Louisville's defense that kept the Cardinals in front most of the game.
Cincinnati went scoreless for over nine minutes in the first half, committed three turnovers that led directly to Louisville layups midway through the second half and shot less than 30 percent for the game. Sean Kilpatrick kept Cincinnati within striking distance by scoring 28 points and consistently getting to the foul line, but he still needed 26 shots to do so.
Those types of high-volume shooting performances were once common for Smith as well, but no so often this season.
No longer is Smith's game typified by the wild shots and reluctance to pass that earned him the "Russdiculous" nickname from Pitino two years ago. He acknowledged the change himself Saturday with an instagram video he posted from the celebration in the Louisville locker room.
Wrote Smith, "MyFirstGW!!!!! Last year I would've shot from #HALFCOURT!!"