Louisville Cardinals guard Russ Smith has been the driving force behind his team's second consecutive Final Four appearance in the 2013 NCAA tournament. When the top-seeded Cardinals take on No. 9 upstart Wichita State on Saturday night in Atlanta, Smith's outstanding play will continue.
The 6'1" junior may be undersized for a high-scoring guard, but he is certainly not shy on the big stage. In fact, he has actually played his best basketball in the midst of March Madness. Smith is averaging 26 points in the tournament and shooting 54 percent from the field.
That is a significant step up from Smith's numbers during the regular season, as he took ill-advised shots at times and was never known to be particularly efficient offensively.
Such a development seems to be a contradiction, but the more that's at stake, the better Smith seems to perform.
The typical tendency would be for players to get more anxious, press even harder and thus see their play and production take a dip. Surprisingly, that's not been the case for Smith—and that's great news for Rick Pitino, who has been able to trust him as a leader and a consistently reliable go-to scorer.
Smith explained what the difference has been in his game to CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello on Friday:
I had to learn how to be smarter. It was more of the IQ and the mental part with me. Instead of going 100 miles per hour, now on a fast break, I'll go, go, go 90 -- stop. Go 30 miles. Switch gears. Then go 100. That shift of pace is really necessary at this level.
As crafty as Smith is when finishing at the rim, he will have his work cut out for him against the sizable Shockers lineup.
The national semifinal is about as big of a game as there is in college basketball, though, so it only makes sense that Smith will rise to the occasion again.
Louisville lost at this stage last year, when Smith was still coming off the bench as a scoring spark. Unfortunately, it was a rather forgettable performance for him, as he sank just four of his 15 shots from the floor in a 69-61 loss to the eventual national champion Kentucky Wildcats.
This time around, Smith is smarter, better and a third-team All-American.
Also helping the cause is the fact that the Cardinals are clearly the better team. They have not dropped a game since a five-overtime thriller against Notre Dame on Feb. 9.
The Shockers have stymied every opponent's top perimeter scorer thus far in their impressive run to Atlanta. Go down the list: Pittsburgh guard Tray Woodall, Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos, Ramon Galloway of La Salle and Ohio State PG Aaron Craft. However, Wichita State will be hard-pressed to find an answer for Smith.
ESPNU's Twitter page highlighted an anecdote that shows how sensational Smith has been in the open court:
The Cardinals will avenge last year's Final Four loss thanks largely to Smith playing stout defense, slashing to the rim and scoring at least 20 points, guiding Louisville to a national championship appearance.
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