Russ Smith’s Return to Louisville Inspires National Title Repeat PotentialPosted by Chris Johnson on April 25th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Most of college basketball’s truly elite programs annually grit their teeth and devise creative scholarship and recruiting stratagems to deal with an extremely unfortunate fact of roster life. The very best and most aspirational players usually aren’t in this here amateur basketball thing purely for the fun of it. They have their professional lives, their financial well-being, and that of their family’s, as overriding motivations to have the best and most NBA-translatable college career possible. They want to not only make it to the next level, but survive and enjoy the same unwavering fan support available at the college level (which, let’s just say professional fan bases are… blah) while earning the salary their talents rightfully warrant. Whereas in some cases the money and professional fame and draft stock considerations recommend a player’s departure after two or even one season, others elect to finish out their four years of eligibility in an uninterrupted cycle. These decisions – stay or go; money and bright lights or infectious fan bases and genuine campus pride; David Stern or Mark Emmert – are never easy, and if there ever were a case to illustrate the inner mental tug-of-war wrought in advance of a player’s draft decision, Louisville’s Russ Smith was an A-List prototype.
Having already banked a Final Four appearance and national championship in consecutive seasons, won over the affection of his previously irascible head coach (to the point of influencing his racehorse naming rights), and scored boundless national media love over an endearingly reckless two years of mercurial point guard play, Russ Smith finished his national championship season with an utterly brutal decision to make: leave or stay? His erratic shooting and often-horrifying decision-making no doubt gave NBA scouts pause, as did his miniature stature and riverboat-gambler approach on the defensive end, but was it even reasonably possible that an eternally unrestrained Smith would boost his draft stock to any measurable degree in a potential return season? What were the chances Smith just was what he was, and anything he did next season wasn’t going to affect his status in such a way as to greatly improve his fortunes at the next level? Smith put the matter to rest Wednesday, and whether you agree with his decision on principle – whether you think it was in Smith’s best interest to cash in on a season that, in Ken Pomeroy’s wonky efficiency world, ranked better than any other last season – the upside for college hoops itself is tough to deny. Smith is back, and with the possible exception of Kentucky and its relentless fan base, everyone can come together in unison: This is a good thing.
For college basketball entertainment purposes, how could it not be?! Smith is an unpredictable energizer bunny, a super-streaky scorer and a tenacious, ball-ripping, full-court-pressing defender. He is fun. We might as well stop the conversation right there – Smith is back, and pretty much anyone with a functioning inferior vena cava can’t wait to see him on the court this season. But for however awesome this may seem for college hoops watchers everywhere, it’s a world of impeccable opportunity for the school he calls (or will call, for one more season) home. The Louisville Cardinals were already going to be very good next season. Luke Hancock was back after a Final-Four turning MOP performance. Super-bouncy freshman Montrezl Harrell would blossom in bigger minutes and Chane Behanan promised another season of bruising post work. Chris Jones, the top-rated junior college player in the country, would instantly buttress Louisville’s backcourt. The only real troubling defection was Gorgui Dieng – the significant structural shift required to rejigger a defense so heavily predicated on a Dieng-created interior block party, and every shot or deferred shot it caused, would be something.
But it would be a very small thing when viewed against everything else Louisville brought back. Smith augments the Cardinals’ national championship defense, and even with Dieng gone, Rick Pitino has himself a very real national championship contender, a chance to complete one of the many quaint milestones lost over time to college basketball’s diffusion of talent and peaking parity. Florida was the last team to win back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. Those teams were deep and balanced and well-coached and just plain good, but is it unreal to think Louisville’s returning troops shouldn’t spawn at least tepidly optimistic national championship aspirations? And that’s without even mentioning the fact the Cardinals will play in the gut-punched Big East, or AAC, or whatever, next season. Getting a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament is a baseline expectation. After that, a few more wins and hey, you never know.
There is still – of course I didn’t forget, you guys! – that state-sharing royal blue monolith collectively striking a menacing glare at this digital medium, smirking at Smith and the thought of Louisville’s deep and experienced rotation. Returning fringe-NBA role players are nice and all, but so are six McDonald’s All-Americans and the consensus best recruiting class of all time – which, mind you, is an Andrew Wiggins-agnostic superlative. The subtexts surrounding 2013-14’s Bluegrass hoops warfare were tinged with a leveling measure of perceived competitive equity Wednesday, and the result is a sweeter and altogether more prospectively vitriolic UK-UL matchup. I can’t wait. Not for UK-UL, Louisville’s attempted title repeat and not for another full season of Russ Smith.