Russ Smith Returns to Louisville: Why Cardinals Should Be the Preseason No. 1

C.J. MooreCollege Basketball National Lead WriterApril 24, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 08:  Russ Smith #2 of the Louisville Cardinals is interviewed in the locker room after Louisville won 82-76 against the Michigan Wolverines during the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four Championship at the Georgia Dome on April 8, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It always feels a bit ridiculous to rank college basketball teams in April or October. How teams or players will develop is a mystery at those points, especially in the one-and-done era. But experience and consistency is usually worth gambling on, even if it's of a "Russdiculous" variety. 

Yes, Russ Smith is coming back. Louisville's star guard reversed course on what his dad said was the plan and announced on Wednesday that he will return for his senior season.

That puts a hitch in the narrative that the hype machine was already beginning to pen of a dream season for Kentucky and its "greatest recruiting class of all time." 

Louisville should be the favorite now.

Smith returns to a roster that will have three starters back, along with a number of bench players poised to play bigger roles and several newcomers who could contribute right away. 

What John Calipari has done in recruiting is not to be underestimated. He signed five players ranked in Rivals.com's top 11 and six within the top 19. That roster could end up with nine players in the NBA someday and no one would blink twice.

And if Andrew Wiggins joins the group, game over, right? 

Nope. Pitino will have what most champions are made of with a blend of star power and experience. 

It's unlikely that Smith will ever be a star in the NBA. It was far from a given that he would even be drafted in the first round. That's why this decision makes sense. He can get his degree. He can play more at point guard next season, a position where he will likely play in the NBA if he makes it. And he can be a star for one more year of his life.

That's really all the Cardinals were missing without Smith. Chane Behanan had the potential; that much was obvious in glimpses last year, including the National Championship game when he went for 15 points and 12 rebounds. But Smith is a proven star at the college level, and he has the personality to match. 

Smith has already handled praise and criticism, both of which he deserved during his junior season when he was brilliant at times with his pressure defense and relentless attacking of the rim and frustrating at others with his insistence on getting shots up. 

That will be a battle Pitino continues to fight with his "Russdiculous" guard. But just like in the title game, Pitino has options when Smith needs to get his head right. Pitino returns Final Four star Luke Hancock, starter Wayne Blackshear and Kevin Ware to the backcourt. He also has top JUCO point guard Chris Jones joining the team, along with incoming freshman point guard Terry Rozier, a highly-regarded recruit who spent the last year at prep school in order to qualify.

Behanan will be joined up front by Montrezl Harrell, who showed he's an incredible athlete as a freshman and is probably the biggest X-factor for Louisville next season. 

Kentucky's roster is filled with unknowns. The Wildcats could be great like the 2012 team. Or they could have trouble adjusting to the college game, similar to the 2013 team. 

I was even crazy enough to believe Louisville should be the favorite, even without Smith. Now I'm even more confident in the Cardinals as my preseason pick to repeat as champs. 

Smith and the Cardinals have proven what they can do on the court. The paper champs at UK will be a challenge. Watching it play out and watching Smith for one more season will be a blast. November can not get here soon enough, especially in the state of Kentucky.