The Louisville Cardinals and Russ Smith are set to defend their crown as NCAA champions Nov. 9 when they battle the College of Charleston Cougars in their season opener.
It’s been seven months and a handful of days since the Cardinals left the Georgia Dome with nets around their necks and holding the championship trophy in triumph. But much has changed with this Louisville squad since cutting down the nets April 8:
Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng have made their way to the NBA and left gaps in the 2013-14 roster, the uncertainty of Chane Behanan’s return to Louisville’s lineup and Smith’s father assuming his son would go pro.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino landed a slew of potential future All-Americans in Terry Rozier, Anton Gill, Mangok Mathiang and Akoy Agau (Chris Jones wasn’t mentioned because of his remaining eligibility).
So with the new additions, what will be the identity of this year’s Cardinals?
Will they be the one-and-done champions that every team has been since the 2006-07 Florida Gators repeated? Will there be a huge drop off like their in-town rival Kentucky Wildcats experienced in 2012-13? (Not likely, but it is a possibility). Or will they showcase another spectacular run that will end with them cutting down the nets at AT&T Stadium?
Well, it would be premature to make that assessment. But one thing is certain—these Redbirds need to establish an identity early in this year.
Coach Pitino’s full-court pressure is the staple of Louisville’s defense. However, with the team’s former floor general and best pickpocket, Siva, in a Detroit Pistons uniform, who will become the leader on this team?
The seemingly obvious candidate is the team’s best scorer, “Russdiculous.”
In Smith’s last hoorah as a Cardinal, this will be the preseason All-American's opportunity to raise his draft stock as well as become a leader of this flock by developing a propensity to build-up and guide his teammates.
According to Mark Maloney of Kentucky.com, being a leader is something Russdiculous yearns to become this season. “Just being a leader really, and just showing people a different side of my game. ... Being more poised."
We will see how Smith bounces back after his last two games of the Big Dance.
In the Final Four game against the Wichita State Shockers, Smith managed 21 points. However, that was on 6-of-17 shooting (4-of-11 from beyond the arc) and hitting just 5-of-12 from the charity stripe. Even more of a blow to Russ’ colossal scoring ego was his performance in the championship game against the Michigan Wolverines. Smith was an abysmal 3-of-16 from the field with just nine points and three turnovers.
In the same interview with Maloney, Smith admitted something that certainly sounds like he’s making strides toward becoming a leader:
When I was younger, I couldn't admit that I was pretty selfish. I'd have dreams of scoring maybe 50 points in a game like (the finals) and maybe losing by one. But national championship game, to not have a big game, score 30 and to understand that and to sacrifice what you do best to help others win the game, I feel that's the kind of mature thing I've grown into.
The more belief Smith has in his teammates, the better chance the champs have of repeating. It is evident Smith is an established scorer and can do so in a myriad of ways. Now, Smith must show Coach Pitino and NBA scouts that he is capable contributing to a win outside of lighting up a scoreboard.
Smith wasn’t far behind Siva in steals (83, and needs 72 more to become Louisville’s all-time leader) and was second on last year’s team in assists (116). He will have to improve those numbers as well as cut down on the turnovers (108) this season. As someone who’s a slasher, it’s expected for Smith to cough up the ball more than usual.
However, with Jones, Kevin Ware, Rozier as potential ball-handlers, Russ will have a much easier time expanding his game and dropping his turnovers.
With Russ Smith as the leader, can the Cardinals repeat?
The struggles Russ Smith endured the final two games of last season should make him more intelligent as a senior.
And his forgettable performances can be stories shared with his new teammates to help them omit similar mistakes he’s made during his tenure as a Cardinal and lead them in a positive direction.
According to ESPN.com's C.L. Brown, during the offseason, Smith began making those strides at becoming a leader. Shortly after the confetti finished falling in Atlanta, instead of resorting to his usual Twitter banter with fans, Smith faded into the background and returned during offseason drills poised to become a leader.
In the same article, Brown noted that teammate Stephan Van Treese believes Smith has filled the vacancy of leader that Siva left.
We know he's one of the floor generals we have this year, we follow him into battle. Now he's basically the new Peyton, Van Treese said. He tells us what to do on and off the court. It's weird to see Russ in that role, but he's really matured. He's kind of become a new person.
As the season goes on and the pressure mounts, Smith will elevate his game and blossom into the leader Pitino and the Cardinals need him to be. But with a player like Smith, the Cards must be patient this season while he makes those changes on the court.