This Q&A and more on Louisville and the American Athletic Conference are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
Louisville’s Russ Smith was one of the most improved players in the country last season, leading the Cardinals in scoring on the way to the national title. His style of play on both ends of the court — sometimes brilliant and sometimes out of control — earned him the nickname “Russdiculous” from U of L coach Rick Pitino.
Smith was second in the Big East at 18.7 points per game and fourth with 2.1 steals per game. The shooting guard improved dramatically offensively, shooting 41.4 percent from the field, up from 35.6 percent a year earlier. Meanwhile, he drew the most difficult defensive assignments. He struggled in the national title game against Michigan and elected to return to Louisville after feedback from the NBA projected him as a second-round draft pick.
In a one-on-one interview with Athlon Sports, Smith reflects on the end of last season, his relationship with Pitino and what’s in store for the Cardinals in 2013-14.
Smith’s Louisville team checked in at
You spent part of your offseason in Estonia as a member of the East Coast All-Stars in a tournament called the Four Nations Cup. What was that experience like?
It was an experience I felt like I needed, get some chances to play on an international level with more space on the court. I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was very comfortable. The lane was bigger but they also play three seconds, so it was really different.
A lot of times these international all-star team trips have a big-name coach and All-America-type players. You guys had a Division III coach in Guy Rancourt from Lycoming College and Williamsport, Pa., and you were the only real household name on your team. How was this experience than the typical all-star trip for someone in your position?
Unfortunately I didn’t get invited to any of those other world games stuff, but what’s important is that I had an opportunity to play against international competition and get better. I got put in contact with the person running it, and I wanted to participate. It had nothing to do with the players on the team or who the coach was going to be. Any experience I could get with international professional basketball, I knew it was going to help me. I think I performed pretty good out there.
While you were gone, your teammates took the trip to the White House and got their championship rings. Did you know that was going to happen, that you wouldn’t be able to go?
Yeah. It’s obviously nothing against any of the people who participated in the White House event, but I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to get better and compete playing basketball. I think I got a lot better from it.
Last season your efficiency numbers really improved even though you were taking more shots. To what do you credit that improvement?
I feel like it was Coach (Pitino). He had a lot of confidence in me to perform at the highest level I can. He gives me, I don’t want to say the green light, but he puts confidence in me that I’m able to make mistakes and make some shots. I hit the gym a lot with my best friend, my boy, Michael Baffour (a walk-on for Louisville’s 2012-13 team). We got a lot of work in through the whole season, just staying with it, and during the season staying in, not going out much during the year and keeping low profile socially.
You mentioned the confidence Coach Pitino had in you. Sometimes a coach will back off a player who makes mistakes or plays out of control sometimes. How much has his confidence in you helped your development?
I remember a point of the season where there was a three-game stretch where I was 9 for 40 or something like that. Coach kept sticking with me, saying it’s going to go down and to keep shooting. He saw my confidence was low. It means a lot for a guy like him to tell me to keep playing. There was a time in the season where I was hitting 48 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line, but I hit a slump and it shot everything back down. Coach was there when I needed him to be.
You and Coach Pitino have a unique player-coach relationship. There’s a lot of banter back and forth. He named one of his horses after you, Russdiculous. How would you describe your relationship with him?
I would describe it as a friend-to-friend relationship. We’re great friends. As friends, you’re honest with each other, you tell each other what you feel like you need. You don’t leave anything out, any variables. Coach does that with me as a friend who needs some coaching and guidance. He does a great job coaching me. As a player, he teaches me to do everything I can do with my abilities. I feel like every time we step out on the court together, I feel like we have the same goal and the goal is to win the game.
What is your biggest goal for personal improvement for this upcoming season?
The biggest goal for me is to not try to do too much. Sometimes I feel like I have to make a play every time I have the ball, and that’s when I force stuff. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s like a magic trick. The important thing to realize is that I don’t have to make a play every play and sometimes I can take it easy and take the foot off the gas and let it all come to me now. I forced a lot of action last year, and now I can let it come to me. I think that’s going to be a big step for me. That’s going to be the hardest part because I don’t like taking the foot off the gas.
Chris Jones looks like he’ll play a lot of point guard for you this season. How well do you know him and how is that chemistry coming together?
I got a chance to get to know him for the month I was here (after the end of last season), and I feel like the chemistry is what’s going to keep the team moving. If you have bad chemistry in your backcourt, your team isn’t going to go very far. Regardless of anything that happens, we’re going to always put it together. We may go through some adversity, but we’re going to have to come together as one and put things behind us. But I think me and him are doing a real good job of coming together and wanting to play competitive basketball.
You struggled a bit in the Final Four (9-of-33 from the field), but you guys won the title. How much does your personal performance gnaw at you or does the championship erase any bad feelings?
The championship always helps, but you always want to perform at the best of your ability. I had a great first five game stretch. The sixth game I couldn’t get it done (3-of-16). As a scorer, you always hear of folktales of another guy stepping up when things are going bad. That’s why I was so happy for Luke (Hancock, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player) and Chane (Behanan). They filled the scoring column when it counted, and they stepped up when we needed them to. That’s why I’m grateful to have these guys. When things are going bad, somebody’s going to step up. When Wayne (Blackshear)’s not having his night, Kevin (Ware)’s going to step up. When I’m not having my night, Montrezl (Harrell) will step up. That’s the glorious part of playing with guys like this.
At one point, it looked like you were going to go to the NBA Draft after last season. You and your father had said so to the media. Was your mind 100 percent made up?
It was never really made up. I didn’t know. Normally you watch the NCAA Tournament or watch the season, and most of the outside guys or guys on the street would or people would say he’d go first round — he had a great year, team won the championship, leading scorer, in the NCAA Tournament scored over 20 five or six times. You would think he’d probably leave, but that wasn’t the case. I had to sit down and look at all the variables. It was almost frustrating to me because I didn’t understand why, Coach didn’t understand why. As a friend, Coach helped me with an executive decision and that was the decision to come back. It didn’t make sense to leave early if they were going to take me early second round. I can come back next year and get better and get an education and hopefully play my way into a first-round pick or go in the same second round where I was going to go last year. Or if not, at least I’ll have my education and I’ll make my way as a man.
Does it help or does it bother you that part of this upcoming season is that everyone is going to be watching Kentucky, too? Even in your own state, the spotlight is going to be spread pretty evenly.
I have nothing toward that school. I like that school and what they do up the road and their players and stuff. That’s the way it is. I’m from New York and my second home is Louisville, Kentucky. The last two years, the championship was in the state. Hopefully we can keep it in the state. The last thing I’m worrying about is what’s going on up the road. We have things to worry about here.
What’s your favorite place to play other than your gym?
Since the numbers don’t lie, I’d say Rupp Arena. But for the Big East, the places I actually liked were Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and West Virginia. Those were like zoos in there.
Other than Coach Pitino, who would be a coach you’d want to play for?
If I could play for Coach Curran one more time, I’d do that. (Smith’s high school coach, Jack Curran of Archbishop Molloy in Queens, N.Y., died in March 2013. Curran won 972 basketball games and 1,708 baseball games since beginning his career in 1958.)
Who is the toughest player you’ve guarded?
It might have been the guy from Providence, Bryce Cotton. Chasing him on screens was very frustrating. Providence has about 30 sets and they came down in a different set each time. I had to chase him through a maze of screens as well as press and play offense. Those may have been the most frustrating games of my life.
Who is the toughest player who has guarded you?
I’d probably give it to the St. John’s boys. The guy (Sir’Dominic) Pointer, he’s a really good defender. And the guys from Memphis, they play hard out there — (Geron) Johnson, (Chris) Crawford and (Joe) Jackson.