Why Russ Smith Will Shoot Down Louisville's NCAA Title Hopes

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Why Russ Smith Will Shoot Down Louisville's NCAA Title Hopes
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Russ Smith got his nickname—"Russdiculous"—from Rick Pitino during a practice last January, when Pitino, as documented in Sports Illustrated in December, snapped at Smith: "That shot was ridiculous! Only you would take that shot. That shot was...Russdiculous!"

It has become an endearing term, and there's a belief that even with Smith shooting with reckless abandon, Louisville can make it back to the Final Four and is in the conversation for the national title. The odds, however, are against the Cardinals, and it has everything to do with Smith's chucking ways. 

Smith's latest disregard of shot logic came on Tuesday night in a bad loss on the road at Villanova. It was the third time in the last five games that his line was, well, Russdiculous

Against Seton Hall on Jan. 9, he went 2-of-11 and missed both his three-point attempts. Against South Florida on Dec. 12, he went 2-of-13 and missed all four of his three-pointers. And finally in Tuesday's loss, Smith went 2-of-13 from the field, missed all four of his threes and gave away four turnovers. 

In the last five games, Smith is 4-of-24 from the perimeter, and he's now shooting 31.7 percent from deep. According to Hoop-Math.com, Smith makes only 27 percent of his two-point jumpers. The only area of the court where he scores with any sort of efficiency is at the rim, where he makes 70 percent of his looks. 

So why in the world does he keep shooting...and shooting...and shooting?


Understanding the Origin of "Russdiculous" 

Blame it on his old man. At least that's a start. 

Here's a story from Smith's father, Big Russ, told to Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn during his time with Smith in December:

This is when Russ was maybe six years old, and I wanted to see where his game was at. I'd take him to different parks and pick out some kid who was maybe eight or nine. And I'd say to him, 'Do me a favor. I'll give you a couple dollars. Play 1-on-1 against my son.' He'd kill these older kids and I'd be like, 'Damn.' You know when you see a ballplayer, and this kid's got something.

Smith has always been out to prove himself—understandable for a player who rode the pine as a freshman—and thus, he treats most Louisville games as his own one-on-one contest. 

Smith put a clinic on how to ignore the shot clock and open teammates against Villanova.

Let's take a look at three examples. 

The first comes out of a baseline inbounds play that ends up with the ball in Smith's hands on the right wing. 

This is often a situation where Smith drives to shoot. Only 11 percent of his two-point jumpers are assisted, according to Hoop-Math.com. In this play, Smith refuses the ball screen set by Gorgui Dieng and drives toward the baseline. He dribbles into a double-team and chooses to shoot instead of pass.

Notice the two players (circled in green) who are open. 

Screen shot from Watch ESPN

It would have been easy for Smith to hit Luke Hancock near the top of the key. Hancock could have then either taken an open jumper, passed to Kevin Ware in the corner (Ware is a 42.9 percent three-point shooter on limited attempts) or if Montrezl Harrell, set up under the basket, had turned and sealed Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston (No. 22), that could have led to a better shot in the paint. 

Here's Smith's force in real-time. 

In the second example, Smith actually makes a great move at the beginning of the play. As Dieng sets another ball screen, Smith is able to split the two Villanova defenders and get into open space. 

Smith had three great options if he had stopped near the free-throw line. He could lob the ball to Harrell at the rim, pass to Hancock at the bottom of the screen or pass to an open Ware at the top of the screen. 

Screen shot from Watch ESPN

Instead of passing, Smith over-penetrates and ends up turning the ball over. Here's the play in real-time. 

The final shot of this Russdiculous stretch, which all took place in about two minutes, comes off a missed Villanova shot with Smith dribbling the ball up the floor. Hancock (circled), twice passed up by Smith in the last two examples, must have seen the look in Smith's eyes as he brought the ball up the court. 

Screen shot from Watch ESPN

No Russ. Don't do it! 

 He did. 

Two minutes. Three bad decisions. 

 

History Is Not Kind to the One-Man Show

One team has made the Final Four in the last 10 years with a player shooting on more than 35 percent of his team's possessions—Smith shoots it 35.9 percent of the time—and that one team was Louisville in 2011. 

Why not this year? 

Well, it's certainly possible that the Cardinals defense is good enough to make it to Atlanta, but eventually they are going to run into a team with enough experience and poise to negate the pressure defense of Smith and Peyton Siva. 

That was the case at last year's Final Four when Smith made only 4-of-15 attempts and Kentucky shot 57 percent. 

Kentucky won with a team-first approach, and that's a common trait among most national champions. 

Take a look at the last 10 champs and the player who shot most often on each respective squad (data from KenPom.com and Statsheet.com). 

Year

Champion

Go-to shooter

%Shots

2003

Syracuse

Carmelo Anthony

31.4

2004

Connecticut

Ben Gordon

26.6

2005

North Carolina

Rashad McCants

28.6

2006

Florida

Corey Brewer

24.6

2007

Florida

Corey Brewer

25.2

2008

Kansas

Darrell Arthur

27.7

2009

North Carolina

Tyler Hansbrough

25.6

2010

Duke

Nolan Smith

27.1

2011

Connecticut

Kemba Walker

32.9

2012

Kentucky

Terrence Jones

22.6

Only Syracuse with Carmelo Anthony and Connecticut with Kemba Walker had a player shoot on more than 30 percent of his team's possessions. It's no shocker that Anthony was allowed to shoot so often, as he is one of the best offensive players of his generation. Walker had the highest offensive rating on his team, so a shot by Walker was often better than a shot by any of his teammates. 

Neither of those statements can be made about Smith. In fact, Smith's offensive rating is the worst of Louisville's five starters. 

If there's a player in recent memory that mirrors Smith's two-year run of chucking, it's Davidson's Stephen Curry. 

Curry shot on 36 percent of his team's possessions in 2008 and 38.3 percent in 2009, but his high usage was justifiable. Look at how his shooting numbers compared to Smith's and consider that defenses were geared to stop Curry. Louisville's opponents don't always mind if Smith shoots. 

Year

Player

2-point FG%

3-point FG%

2008

Curry

54

43.9

2009

Curry

51.9

38.7

2012

Smith

37.9

30.6

2013

Smith

46.2

31.7

As you can see, Smith's percentages are up this season. You could argue that gives some validity to his shoot-first, second-second and shoot-third approach, but the increases are mostly a result of Smith finishing better at the rim. As noted earlier, he makes 70 percent of his layups and dunks compared to only 53 percent last season.  

That's the good of Russdiculous. He gets to the rim in transition because he's one of the best thieves in college basketball, and he's also a gifted slasher. He just needs to slash selectively and consider the concept of shot selection. If this is who he is and there's no changing him, Louisville's title hopes are slim. 

Because Smith is no Curry. He's no Anthony. He's not even Walker. He's a great defensive player with a great motor. Getting him to shoot less frequently is not going to take away from what makes him special. 

He can still be Russdiculous. Just a smarter version. 

All advanced statistics used in this piece, unless otherwise noted, are from KenPom.com.

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