University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino recently told a story about sitting down last month and talking with junior guard Russ Smith.
Smith, an exciting but sometimes out of control shooting guard for the Cardinals' last season, earned the nickname "Russdiculous" from Pitino last season for his sometime erratic play on the floor.
"I had a talk with him and I asked him, ‘When you do want a pro scout to say, ‘I like that Russ Smith and what he brings to the table'," Pitino recalled. "Russ was like, ‘What do you mean?' He didn't understand what I was getting at.
"So, I told him we've had 30 scouts come in and not one question about Russ Smith. I've been taken back by how much it registered with him."
The 6-foot native of Brooklyn, N.Y., has turned the corner.
In three scrimmages, two exhibitions and the first game of the season, Smith has played more under control, less shoot-first attitude and just an all-around better game. He led the team with 23 points and five steals on Sunday against Manhattan.
"He's really, really getting good now," Pitino said. "Russ is tremendous because he is unguardable. Now the only thing he really has to improve on is blocking his guy out, getting loose ball rebounds and off-the-ball defense. He is always looking for the steal. I mean always. You can see his eyes get bigger and bigger."
Smith was rumored to perhaps be transferring prior to last season. But he stayed and became a key player for the Cardinals.
Pitino tagged him with the nickname "Russdiculous," noting it was a term of endearment but because of his sometime erratic behavior the nickname sometimes had a double meaning last season.
Smith said he still likes the nickname and doesn't want to lose it but noted "losing the perception would be cool."
And he's well on his way.
Smith said he started his transformation during the summer when his father, Russ Sr., had a talk with him about his shot selection.
"I just had to listen to what coach was telling me and try to get better every day," Smith said. "I worked hard. Decision-making, decision-making and shot selection I worked hard at getting better. It's not easy, but I think I'm improved."
Pitino said after his chat with Smith about NBA scouts that Smith told him he wanted scouts to take note of him "right now."
"I told him he had to do the following things," Pitino said. "He's been doing it and it was the biggest transition from a player in one week than I have seen in a long time. He has gone from totally out of control to totally in control."
Manhattan coach Steve Masiello, a former U of L assistant coach, said he was surprised by the growth he's seen in Smith since his freshman season.
"The game seems to come very easy to him right now," Masiello said. "I don't think he's forcing anything. I think when you watch him play he used, to force things a little bit and try to take some things on. It seems like he- and really the whole team-make things look easy that aren't easy."
While he's changed on the floor, Smith is still the same jokester off the floor. He comes up with nicknames for his teammates and as center Gorgui Dieng put it, "Russ, he's just a very funny guy."
"Don't pay attention to what Russ says, he is goofy," Dieng said. "We used to be roommates on the road. When we were playing Michigan State, I was sleeping and at something like 2 a,m., I woke up and Russ was doing push ups.
"We had to play at 11. But that's just Russ."
Pitino said Smith, who averaged 11.5 points a game last season but shot just 35.6 percent from the field and had 90 turnovers and 75 assists, was the "key" to the Final Four run for the Cardinals.
"Without him, we don't win a BIG EAST championship and we don't go to the Final Four," Pitino added. "Somebody asked me the question: "Who is more valuable, Gorgui or Peyton" and I have no idea. Who is the guy we can't win without? Russ Smith. He gives you a dimension that most teams don't have. He is unguardable and then he turns around and is the leading steal leader for a season at our school. On the ball offensively and on the ball defensively, he is pretty darn good.
"If he keeps this up, we have a pretty darn good basketball player on our hands."