Four To Watch Out For: Russ Smith, Pinball Wizard

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In anticipation of the Final Four, we're highlighting four players whose very presence on the court is a reason to watch. Not that you need any convincing, probably, but yeah.

Russ Smith is a reserve, second-year guard for the Final Four-bound Louisville Cardinals. Russ Smith should also be your favorite player left in the NCAA Tournament. How, you ask, can this be said with any certainty? First, Ed Daniel’s hair was eliminated last weekend. Second, you are a human being with a real, beating heart and a functional brain, and Russ Smith is Russ Smith. So, QED.

Okay, I'll explain. As Fredorrarci wrote here last month, things quickly get murky when you try to reconcile an athlete’s playing style with his personality. There is, inevitably, just so much we don’t know, and so much that we tend to imagine. Sometimes, though, it all just matches up too perfectly—which is the case with Russ Smith. A quick look at Smith’s neurotically detailed, multi-bulleted Louisville bio reveals many important things. The first note: “A group of injuries limited his playing time as a freshman (broken foot, concussion, strained foot, sore knee), seeing action in 17 games.”

That is telling, and also kind of perfect. Not because I’m cool with head injuries, but because these are all injuries you’d suffer if you played basketball as if it were bumper cars, which is the way Russ Smith plays basketball. He streaks up and down the court, hitting things, occasionally passing, usually shooting, and doing a lot of fruitless jumping—always, always doing something. He’s barely six feet, but the court doesn’t seem quite big enough for him and all his wayward energy. The threat of him dribbling the ball into the stands, out an exit, and into the street seems real.

Smith says that he doesn’t try to play a certain way or do a particular thing well. Instead, when he comes off the bench, he surveys the game and tries to do whatever his team’s lacking at that particular moment in time. Whatever he then does is done as many times and as fully as humanly possible. He’s sixth on the team in minutes but leads them in shots taken, despite shooting just 35.5 percent from the field. He'll shoot and pass and bone his team out of games, but then he'll also score 19 points against Florida and lead his team to the Final Four. Both are about equally likely, and equally certain to be done emphatically.

This is a video of Smith failing to dunk a basketball into a hoop. This is not surprising. When asked about this moment, Rick Pitino mentioned something about how coaching Smith makes him feel like he’s being cast in a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by which he presumably meant that Smith made him crazy, not that Smith put him into a very 1970's allegory about conformity alongside a silent giant named “Chief.” It's easy to see how the Russ Smith Experience might be rough on Pitino. As hard as it is for opposing defenses to contain Smith's whirling energy, it's equally difficult for the constraints of an offense to do the same. While coaches (quite understandably) hate coaching guys who seemingly can’t be coached and die-hards develop vicarious coach-ulcers from watching the aforementioned uncoachables, the rest of us don't have to sweat all that. It is fun as hell to watch Smith play. It is, in fact, fun to watch Russ Smith do anything. Here, watch him dance:

Given how much fun Russ Smith seems to have being Russ Smith, it would be kind of rude not to enjoy it ourselves. Some more important Russ Smith things:

- He gave bunny ears to Pitino.

- His nickname is "Russ-diculous."

- His hidden talent is that “he can sleep all day.”

- He wants Dave Chapelle to play him in a movie.

- His favorite TV show is Law and Order.

- His favorite food is “Qdoba.”

- He eats cookies at midnight.

- He puts a "bitter tasting but harmless pure vegetable product" on his fingers to keep himself from biting his nails.

- He was up until 2 a.m. doing pushups and listening to music the night before the Florida game.

- When asked about who he wanted to see in the Final Four, Smith said: "I want UK because of the in-state rivalry, but I want Baylor because they got the infragreen uniforms."

All of which, in the end, is just a long way of saying that Russ Smith is a college kid, just like everyone on his team and everyone he'll face in the Final Four. For all the pressures brought to bear on him and his peers in the games to come—staying up until 2 a.m. doing push-ups isn't something anyone does because he's having fun—and as unreliable as he can be, we can count on Russ Smith succeeding, against Kentucky and after, in reminding us that being a college kid is fun. College kids do dumb things and like stupid stuff and generally bumble enthusiastically through the day, figuring shit out and collecting bruises as they go, and that is how Russ Smith plays basketball. He didn't get his wish of playing against Baylor’s psycho-fluorescent walking-seizure squad, but he’ll get to be Russ Smith again next Saturday, which, outside of any Pitino aneurysms that could result, has to be considered a good thing for everyone involved.

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