Louisville continues to validate its top overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals are cruising past opponents and led Oregon wire-to-wire Friday night in a Sweet 16 showdown with the Pac-12 champions.
Star guard Russ Smith is the catalyst leading Lousiville's late-season surge. The sensational and scrutinized 6'1" junior has been spectacular during a run that features 13 straight wins and a Big East tournament title.
Smith is playing the best basketball of his career and is on the verge of cementing his legacy as a March Madness monster.
The team has trailed for less than five total minutes through three tournament games with Smith setting the pace. Opponents simply haven't kept up with the Cardinals and the team's dynamic leader.
He led Louisville to a Sweet 16 onslaught against Oregon. Smith scored 31 points, shooting 9-of-16 from the floor in a 77-69 dismantling of the Ducks.
The Brooklyn native hit his stride this season just in time to elevate Louisville from promising contender to tourney favorite. Here's how Smith is leading the Cardinals' championship chase.
Deserved or not, Smith gained a reputation as a streaky shooter. He shot just 36 percent from the floor as a sophomore before a modest improvement to 42 percent this season.
He's been able to steadily increase his offensive efficiency, especially in the tournament. Smith is punishing opponents from everywhere on the court, maintaining a strong shooting percentage despite a high volume of attempts.
Smith is shooting 26-of-47 (55 percent) through three tourney matchups. He is 6-of-15 from beyond the three-point arc and continues to make an effort to attack defensive interiors off the dribble.
Louisville is winning in convincing fashion, and a consistent effort from Smith makes this team the most dangerous offensive juggernaut in the tournament.
Smith stopped settling for outside attempts and started asserting himself as a slasher on a more consistent basis during the latter stages of the regular season. Louisville is at its best when pushing a persistent up-tempo transitional attack.
He hoisted up seven or more three-point attempts in six games before February. Since then, it's happened only once (a 4-for-7 effort against Colorado State in the round of 32).
Smith excels at working off an impressive cross-over, which is entering special territory because of his supremely speedy first step. Smith's dribble-drive mentality sets up teammates on the perimeter by forcing opposing defenses to crash inside to help.
Smith is a stingy man-to-man defender who rarely surrenders real estate along the exterior. He swiped a season-high eight steals against North Carolina A&T in the round of 64 and gave Oregon's backcourt fits.
Ducks standout freshman Damyean Dotson never looked comfortable, as Smith and Peyton Siva spearheaded a disruptive perimeter effort. It's an old cliche, but Louisville's offense is its best defense.
The Cardinals obliterate offensive game plans with a swarming effort that keeps opponents on their heels and forces mental mistakes. Louisville cashes in quick buckets that add up to bury teams.
Smith turns timely steals into transition opportunities. The Cardinals close out games with devastating fast-break conversions, and it's typically the team's tenacious star leading the charge.
Smith has earned his way to the free-throw line with more frequency, coinciding with his increased dedication to drive the ball. His quickness puts pressure on post defenders, who are often caught out of position and forced to foul.
He is 21-of-24 on foul attempts in the Cardinals' past two tournament victories. The performance continues a positive trend in Smith's offensive game.
Smith is an 83 percent free-throw shooter, so it's a big deal when he gets to the line. He has attempted at least seven free-throw attempts in 10 of the past 14 contests.
When Rick Pitino applied the term "Russdiculous" to describe Smith's on-court performances, it resonated in various ways depending on who you asked. Essentially, it summed up the unpredictable and explosive nature of the guard's game.
He was a mercurial scoring machine.
Clearly, Pitino respected Smith's abilities enough to give him the green light early and often during a scintillating junior season. Pitino has coached his share of superstars during an esteemed college career and Smith certainly seems to fall into place as the latest in a long line of go-to guys.
Early in the season, Smith suffered from a case of split identity as a basketball player.
There was Good Russ.
Example: 18 points, six assists, six steals in a November win over No. 13 Missouri.
And there was Bad Russ.
Example: Eight points on 2-of-13 shooting in a January loss at Villanova.
Eventually, Smith ironed out the shortcomings in his overall game, particularly a penchant for chucking up possession-killing, long-distance heaves and a lack of patience.
With Louisville three wins away from a national championship, he clearly trusts his own decision-making more than ever and, in turn, Louisville looks the best of the bunch so far in the big dance.
"Russdiculous" is officially a part of Louisville lore.