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Thursday, November 15, 2012
Russ Smith wants to change his ways

By Eamonn Brennan

Last season, Russ Smith earned a reputation, and a nickname from his coach, that isn't likely to go away.

That nickname was "Russdiculous," and it described the reputation pretty well. Smith, in short, was a goofball. He bit his nails so much Rick Pitino made him use a product designed to stop babies from sucking their thumbs. He once ended an angry shout-session timeout by asking his coach for a hug. He celebrated a trip to the Sweet 16 by giving Pitino bunny ears on live television. And that personality infused every bit of his game: As a sixth man, he ranked in the top 10 in the country in usage rate and shot percentage, despite posting an ugly 91.5 offensive rating. But he made big shots in March, and contributed in other ways, including ranking second in the country in steal percentage (6.2). It was as if Smith transferred all that scattershot nervous energy to whomever he guarded.

Russ Smith
Louisville Cardinals guard Russ Smith has a unique relationship with coach Rick Pitino.
Pitino might have initially meant that label as an epithet, but as Smith's how-did-he-just-do-that postseason proceeded, and Pitino glowed talking about his team, it grew into a term of endearment. Now Pitino's horse shares it.

But, per the Louisville Courier-Journal, Smith has had enough of being seen comedically. He wants to be taken seriously. He wants "Russdiculous" to mean something else entirely:
“It’s a pretty popular name, so I wouldn’t want to lose that,” the junior guard said. “Losing the perception would be cool. I want to make people say, ‘Oh, wow, Russdiculous changed.’” [...] Smith’s maturation continued when Pitino told him after a practice that of all the NBA scouts who have visited, none had asked about him.

“ ‘When do you want to reach the point where someone looks at you as a serious basketball player?’ ” Pitino said he asked Smith. “He says, ‘I’d like for it to happen now.’ I said, ‘You have to do these following things,’ and he’s been doing it.”

I'm not sure Smith will have NBA scouts salivating anytime soon, but he can play a major role in the improvement of his team. Arguably, the biggest question governing Louisville's return to the Final Four this season -- not to mention a run at the Big East title, and a better-than-No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament -- is whether the Cardinals improve on 2012's sub-100 ranked efficiency offense. Smith isn't the only player who needs to become more efficient. Peyton Siva is in that boat, too. But as a starter, if Smith maintains anything close to last season's usage rates, he has to get more efficient.

If he does, he'll be taken more seriously, and the context of Russdiculous will change. Let's just hope he doesn't stop asking for hugs.