Rick Needs To Let Russ Be Russ

01/28/2013 10:50 AM

The Louisville basketball team, who many pegged as the national title favorite just three weeks ago, has lost three games in a row. And naturally, the finger-pointing and blame game is in full effect. Everybody from your mother to the message board mavens has a say in it, and no one is being spared.
Coach Rick Pitino is under fire for the team’s late-game execution, or lack thereof. Pick a player, and he’s likely been targeted.
Chane can’t catch the ball. Gorgui and Blackshear need to be more aggressive. Siva needs to stop fouling so much. Russ needs to stop shooting so much.
But ultimately, the only opinion that matters is the one of Pitino.
It didn’t take much reading between the lines to make the determination that Pitino isn’t thrilled with Russ Smith these days. Those feelings became overwhelmingly apparent when Pitino benched Smith for Saturday’s game against Georgetown, a game that the Cards would ultimately lose 53-51.
That benching came in the aftermath of the Cards’ 73-64 loss at Villanova on Monday when Smith played one of his worst games of the season. He went just 2-of-13 from the floor, including 0-for-4 on threes, went one-on-one too much, rushed shots and turned the ball over.
Shortly thereafter, Pitino hinted at a lineup change, in part because he needed a unit that “passed the ball better” to start the game. He went on to add that UofL’s recent offensive struggles were due to “poor shot selection.”
Pitino might has well just come out and said, “Russ, this means you, son.”
Look, I’m sure Russ can drive Pitino crazy at times. And, yes, he’s going to throw in some clunkers every now and then. He stunk up the joint at Memphis. And Villanova was his third bad shooting performance in the month of January, following a 2-for-11 against Seton Hall and a 2-for-13 against South Florida.
But let me make this perfectly clear: If the Cards want to even sniff a national title, they ain’t doin’ it without a fully engaged Russ.
The Cards are in somewhat of a tailspin right now, but scapegoating and potentially alienating a player that has bailed you out time and time again doesn’t seem like the move to make to right the ship.
A three-game losing streak shouldn’t belittle the fact that Smith is still averaging close to 19 points a contest. He’s also shown up for the big ones: Missouri (18 points, six rebounds, three assists, six steals); Duke (17 points, seven rebounds); Kentucky (21 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals); and Syracuse (25 points, four steals).
After all that, a shoddy performance against ‘Nova gets him a seat on the pine to start the game?
Granted, Pitino’s benching of Smith didn’t really have a negative impact to the flow of the Georgetown game. Hancock, Smith’s replacement, had one of his better performances of the season. And now Pitino’s trying to spin Smith’s benching into a positive, saying he can return to his previous (and lethal) role as a sparkplug off the bench.
That actually won’t be a tough sell, because I always liked Russ coming off the bench. I wondered why Pitino decided to start him because he played the Super Sub role so well.
There’s a problem with that, though. When you brag on a guy all preseason and say he’s earned the right to start, start him, and he follows that up by being your best player, and then you bench him after a bad game, it appears like punishment. It appears like you’re putting all of the team’s struggles on him, especially when there are plenty of other players who haven’t been carrying their weight, either.
To his credit, Russ said all the right things after the Georgetown game.
“In practice, coach has been telling me to find my teammates and focus on ball movement,” he said. “They want me to try and look for guys and try to get to the end of plays, so I’m trying to cut down on creating my own shots and look for other guys. Things happen, and I’m trying to get better and do whatever I can to get us better. That’s what’s important moving forward, staying positive about the whole situation. If I gotta pass the ball more, I gotta find my teammates and I gotta make things happen offensively without creating my own shot.”
But Smith appeared perturbed at the benching during the first half of the Georgetown game and played tentative. But when the game was on the line, there Smith was, keeping the Cards in it like he has so many times over the last year-and-a-half. His contested jumper ended a near eight-minute drought without a field goal and brought the Cards to within 45-41 at the 8:45 mark. He followed that up with another layup, steal, a tough layup in transition and a perfect feed to Gorgui Dieng for a dunk, and the game was tied at 48 with 5:40 left.
Smith took one more shot the rest of the way.
Fact is, teams have figured out a few things about Louisville. They’re going to try and pick-and-roll you to death with Peyton Siva and Dieng, and at the end of the game, Siva’s going to have the ball in his hands to try and win it.
To Siva’s credit, he’s made enough game-winning plays in the past to have earned that right. But lately it hasn’t been working. When Siva has been able to get in the lane, he’s either thrown it away or had one of his big men fumble the pass. And who wasn’t scratching their heads at the 18-foot jumper at the end of the end of the Georgetown game, especially from a guy who hadn’t scored a point?
It might be time to try something different: maybe some inside-out in the post with Dieng and Behanan, or maybe put the ball in Russ’s hands and see what he can do.
Russ doesn’t always make the right decisions. I get that. And he can get out of control. But he plays extremely hard and he’s fearless. Even when he’s not making shots, his impact on the defensive end justifies his presence on the floor. (His strip of Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams and subsequent dunk was one of the sequences of the year.)
There have been whispers of some chemistry problems with the Cards. I’m not privy to the Louisville locker room, so I won’t speculate. Remember, when UofL was struggling last year, there was talk of locker room issues last year. (Isn’t there always talk about chemistry problems when a team is struggling?) I will say this: I don’t know Smith very well personally, but I have spent some time around him, and he never struck me as a selfish guy. Confident to a fault? Maybe. But selfish? Nah.
I do think the Cards will snap out of their funk, probably starting tonight against Pittsburgh. They’ve got too much talent not to. Plus, doesn’t there always seem to be some mid-season drama floating around the UofL camp? And don’t they usually work their way through it? So they should get the benefit of the doubt on that.
But Louisville needs to do more than just snap out of its funk. UofL fans are starving for a national title, and not that long ago they thought they were the frontrunners to get one this year. Anything short of a return trip to the Final Four will be viewed as a disappointment.
If they want to get there, they need a Russ Smith playing freely, loosely, relaxed; not frustrated and afraid to make a mistake. I’m not saying Russ should be given free rein to do whatever he wants. But at this point he should have also earned the occasional pass for a bad game.
Russ doesn’t strike me as the emotionally fragile type. In fact, those who know him say he’s headstrong and can be defiant. So the chances of him shrugging this whole thing off remain high. Pitino said Smith will come off the bench again with the Cards needing a win in the worst way against home against Pittsburgh on Monday night.
“I don’t really mind it. I know how good I am,” Smith told the media in the locker room post-Georgetown.* “I’ve proven myself against top tier talent. It’s not really anything that I would want to focus on or cry or bicker about.”
But if you’re Pitino, why risk losing him? Smith was a lightly-recruited player who many felt wasn’t in Pitino’s long-term plans after a non-descript freshman year that saw him average just 2.2 points a game in 96 minutes. Instead of transferring, he stayed, worked hard and turned himself into a National Player of the Year candidate. Pitino didn’t seem too crazy about the Player of the Year talk or the Sports Illustrated article done on Smith.
Pitino spoke in the preseason of how Smith had matured as a player and earned the right to start, and how he as a coach had learned to appreciate Smith’s talents and take the good with the bad. Now, more than ever, he needs to live up to those words. Russ is going to be Russ. If it’s all good when you’re winning, it shouldn’t be all about him when you’re losing.

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