PHOENIX – Crazy-ass Russ Smith. That's who Rick Pitino handed his season to Saturday. Point guard Peyton Siva had fouled out. Pitino had nobody else, nobody he trusted to thrust Louisville into the Final Four, and so in came the player who Pitino last week said pushes him to the cusp of a nervous breakdown every possession.
Imagine, then, Pitino's conundrum with 3:58 left in the Cardinals' West Region final with Florida. Down two points. Siva slumped over with a head on his towel. Ball in the hands of a walking heart attack. Crowd at US Airways Center wondering which Smith would show: "The most erratic player I've ever played with in my life," as teammate Chris Smith called him, or "Russ-diculous," as Pitino nicknamed him, the mad genius.
Turns out it was neither. This Russ Smith did nothing spectacular, good or bad. He was steady, balanced, exactly what the Cardinals needed, and when the baskets started falling and the lead changed hands and the buzzer sounded and the scoreboard read Louisville 72, Florida 68, he was the first person to throw on the hat, backward and cocked sideways, that said they were going to the Final Four.
"Russ Smith is sometimes crazy, you know," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after a performance in which Smith's 19 points paled next to his playing Xanax for the Cardinals.
Maybe Smith is "more dangerous than Siva because he really has got a fearless spirit about himself," as Donovan said, but flammability is not the characteristic often appreciated from point guards at the end of NCAA tournament games.
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The crazy label is accurate, too, Donovan certainly having heard Pitino, his mentor, drop the word once or a million times in conversation. Smith often congratulates himself after an assist, mumbling "Nice pass, Russ," as he jogs back down the court. He gets himself yanked out of practice more than anybody. Earlier this week, Smith split two defenders, sliced through the lane, wrapped a pass around the post man's head and made a perfect pass to a cutter for a dunk.
"Russ, you're out!" Pitino yelled.
"What'd I do?" Smith said.
"Throw a one-handed pass," Pitino said.
Smith slumped to the sideline, another sin beaten out of him.
He'll get it some day. Pitino is sure of that. Smith is a New York kid, like Pitino, and so the natural affinity manifests itself in toughness. For two years now, Pitino has beaten on Smith for this very moment. He understands his team too well, fully aware that Siva can lose composure and leave the Cardinals in a lurch.
His five fouls – "None of 'em was good," Siva said – placed the burden on Smith to do for his team what he often can't do for himself.
"I've never felt more nervous in my life," he said, though it didn't show. Smith had hit 3-pointers and sunk free throws and dropped floaters throughout the game, willing Louisville back from an 11-point deficit after Pitino compounded Siva's fourth foul with a technical of his own. This was different. Pitino, Siva and center Gorgui Dieng tried to calm Smith. It's going to be OK, they said. They planned plays for Smith to run.
Smith nodded. He does that, often to Pitino's great displeasure. Such a natural cut-up is Smith, Pitino will mistake a simple affirmation – "OK, coach," "All right, coach" – as a challenge to his authority, a bomb of insolence.
"All he do," said Dieng, Smith's roommate in the basketball version of "Perfect Strangers," "is listen to music, dance and make fun of people."
Before Smith cradled the ball over the final 3:58, Siva's father, Peyton Sr., screamed in his inimitable boom: "Step up for your brother, Russ." Do it like he did against Kentucky, when he dropped 30 points on the best team in the country. And not like so many other times in the season, during which Smith shot just 35.5 percent and had more turnovers than assists.
Don't be the Russ Smith who "has no conscience," as teammate Kevin Ware said. Maybe Smith is a little different – he didn't go to bed Friday night until 2 a.m., filling his insomnia with push-ups and songs pulsing through his Beats headphones – but that didn't have to typecast him as a total flake for the most important four minutes of his basketball life.
On the first possession, a couple of missed shots led to a Chane Behanan putback. Smith turned the ball over the next possession, then went on to grab rebounds on three consecutive Florida misses, no right-place, right-time coincidence. Even after another turnover with 19 seconds left and a one-point lead, one that Florida freshman Bradley Beal bailed him out of with a traveling violation, Smith had done enough to send Pitino to his sixth Final Four.
And that's why the coach puts up with the Russ-diculousness: Underneath the façade, underneath the bad decisions, there is a brilliant mess of talent, a wild horse that Pitino has started to break, a sophomore he said "has a unique ability to score, but he has no clue how to play the game."
Time to amend that, coach. Because if someone were to tell you a guy without a clue how to play the game stepped in and for four minutes stabilized a team teetering on the edge of disaster, yanked it back from the precipice, banged big free throws and sent that team to the Mecca of college basketball, know what you'd say?
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