- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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The ridiculous thing would have been to go -- to take a media guide-enhanced 6-foot, 165-pound body, toss it into the shark-infested NBA draft waters and pray for the best, when the best looked like the second round.
Turns out, though, that Russ Smith isn’t so ridiculous after all. The Louisville guard announced Wednesday afternoon that he would return to the national champion's roster for his senior season.
It’s the right decision for Smith and a great decision for the Cardinals. The only loser might be Rick Pitino’s hair, which will undoubtedly add more salt to its pepper as he tries to contain the effervescence that is Russ Smith, basketball player.
Jokes aside -- and there were plenty at the news conference starring the touring Smith & Pitino Comedy Troupe -- this is the time of year where we sit back and armchair point guard basketball players’ decisions. Who was wise to stay, who foolishly left too early.
It’s easy for us to pass judgment in front of our laptops and television screens. We aren’t sitting in Smith’s shoes, watching players all over the country declare their intent to realize their dream while he defers his.
Smith said this was hard, that he didn’t know what to do until he woke up Wednesday morning. And I believe him. This isn’t, shouldn’t and can’t be an easy decision for anyone.
But, at least in Smith’s case, it’s the right move for a ton of reasons.
For all the attention he merited thanks to his dynamic (and occasionally disastrous) plays, Smith was still an understudy for the Cardinals. This has been Peyton Siva’s team for two years running, the point guard being the steady-handed leader and personification of what Louisville was about.
Siva is gone now, and while co-captain Luke Hancock returns, Smith will be the offensive focal point. By default, he’ll need to be in charge.
This is his chance to prove he can be more than a scorer, that he can be a complete player and a leader. Russdiculous will have to be tempered if not retired altogether, replaced with Smith 2.0, which comes with smarter shot selection -- one of the things Pitino said the NBA wants to see -- and defter decision-making in general.
Remember, the Smith who walked off the Georgia Dome floor was a champion but by no means the player Louisville will need him to be this season, nor the player the NBA wants to see.
His Final Four box score was a disaster -- 9-of-33 from the floor, 5-of-17 from beyond the arc with eight turnovers -- bad enough that he didn’t even start the second half of the championship game.
“If I had left, I think I would have been shooting myself in the foot," Smith said. “I don’t think I was mature enough."
Part of Smith’s charm, of course, is his immaturity. He fearlessly and endlessly banters with his Hall of Fame coach. At one point Wednesday, he interrupted Pitino to ask, “What conference are we in again?” (A legitimate question since the answer last season was the Big East, this season will be the AAC, and the following season will be the ACC).
But there is playfulness off the court and immaturity on it.
It’s the second that Smith still has to master. He has come miles in his three years at UL, and Pitino isn’t merely blowing smoke when he says the Cards don't win the title without him.
They absolutely do not. Still, Smith remains an unfinished product, a star that needs a little more buffing. He can do that as a senior.
Of course, if we’re going to be honest, the other reason we applaud Smith’s decision is purely selfish. For one, he’s fun, and sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that this is a game that's meant to be entertaining.
More though, his return makes the defending national champions mighty good and, just two weeks removed from the national championship game, writes a storyline for the 2013-14 season:
Louisville or Kentucky: Which of the commonwealth’s team has the better chance to win the title?
The always fiercely drawn battle lines between the two hated rivals now resemble a statewide anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better contest. UK wins a title; UL wins a title. UK attracts the nation’s best class; UL keeps the better part of its title-winning roster together.
Somewhere in Lexington, John Calipari is probably searching for a thoroughbred for next year’s Kentucky Derby.
What makes this two-horse race in the horse-mad state even more interesting is that the two offer diabolically different how-to guides for college basketball success. Kentucky won its title with heavy reliance on freshmen and will try to replicate that next season, making room for an incoming crew already being hailed as the best ever assembled (replacing the best ever assembled two years ago by Calipari).
Louisville, meanwhile, goes back to its drawing board, incorporating three talented freshmen and one junior college transfer but counting more on six players returning from that title-winning team (seniors-to-be Hancock and Smith, future juniors Wayne Blackshear, Kevin Ware and Chane Behanan and sophomore Montrezl Harrell).
The Wildcats and the Cardinals already have proved both means can lead to a championship, but don’t think that their side-by-side methods won’t be considered a college basketball litmus test next season.
“I was thinking about all the new guys and the jokes I’ll have for them," Smith said at his news conference.
And everyone laughed, because that’s what you do when Smith cracks a joke.
You laugh at the ridiculousness of his candor and brashness.
His return, though, is no joke.