Louisville guard on a roll in the NCAA tournament

Drop in any barber shop and sports is usually a hot topic.

That’s especially true these days at Big Russ’ Barber Shop in Harlem, N.Y., where folks are buzzing about the owner’s son – Louisville guard Russ Smith.

Of course, they’re somewhat biased toward the Brooklyn native, but they’re not alone in their praise of the 6-foot-1 guard.

Smith, considered the best player on the top-seeded team in the NCAA tournament, has garnered attention for his dominating play on both ends of the floor. He is averaging 25.0 points and 5.0 steals per game.

Playing the best he has all year, Smith and the Cardinals (31-5) will take on 12th-seeded Oregon (29-8) in the round of 16 Friday in Indianapolis.

”I do whatever I can on the court and sometimes it’s not the best, but I give an ‘A’ effort,” Smith said after Saturday’s 27-point performance in Louisville’s 82-56 rout of Colorado State in the Cardinals’ second game of the tournament. ”If things happen where I overmatch this effort, then it will happen.”

Smith certainly did that during the regular season. He was second in Big East scoring (18.4 points) and fourth in steals ( 2.2) per game. He is playing even better during Louisville’s 12-game winning streak, averaging nearly 19 points per contest.

His hot streak followed a low point at Notre Dame on Feb. 9.

In the 104-101, five-overtime loss to the Irish, Smith had one of his erratic performances that has earned him the nickname ”Russdiculous” from coach Rick Pitino. Smith finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but shot 4 of 19 from the field and 0 for 6 from beyond the arc.

Big Russ, as Smith’s father is called, felt for his son watching that marathon game but believed he would bounce back because he always has.

”That was a learning experience,” the elder Smith said in a phone interview. ”He always wants to take the last shot … I told him to forget about it; you lost by three in five overtimes and you just move on. He came back hard, with 24 points the next game.”

His father’s advice was also key in keeping Smith at Louisville when he considered transferring after his freshman season.

Smith gave his son the option to leave but told him if stayed, he’d have to spend the summer in ”the lab,” a regimen of grueling workouts involving playing against his old man – who looks just slightly older than his son – and conditioning drills.

The training has yielded improvement each season, but Smith’s recent surge has involved better decision making and shot selection. In his past five games, he’s shooting 34 of 65 (52 percent) and is averaging 2.8 steals per game – including his NCAA-record-tying eight steals against North Carolina A&T.

”If Coach isn’t tired, then we can’t be tired,” Smith said of Louisville’s trademark pressing defense that produced an NCAA-record 20 steals against A&T. ”He drives us every day. and we let him down, we feel like we’re letting all of us down – each other, Louisville, our staff and trainers. We just go out there, play with tremendous effort and that will come from our coach.”

However, it’s clear the Cardinals are also feeding off of Smith’s energy in the postseason. His stellar play at Rupp Arena led Louisville fans and teammates to rename Kentucky’s home venue ”Russ Arena.” Even LeBron James tweeted, ”The lil homie Russ Smith putting on a show right now. (hash)onfire,” during the game.

All that praise also raises the question of why Smith hasn’t been recognized more nationally.

He was an all-conference selection, but hasn’t garnered the kind of attention heaped on Naismith Award finalists Otter Porter of Georgetown and Creighton’s Doug McDermott – no longer in the tournament – along with Michigan’s Trey Burke and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, whose schools are still alive.

If Louisville continues to win and Smith continues to play at this level, that will change.

”I could see how he couldn’t make a team because you really have to see him,” he said. ”You see him now and you really have a great appreciation for the way he plays defensively. …

”He picks up full court, he’s always looking for a steal, off the ball he’s denying, then he’s running pick-and-rolls. Then he’s cutting, then he’s scoring. You know what type of shape you have to be in to play like Peyton Siva and Russ Smith do?”

Russ Sr. certainly does, especially since he helped his son’s development along with the legendary Jack Curran, Russ Smith’s coach at Archbishop Molloy High School. Curry, 82, died March 14.

Big Russ said the folks in his barber shop, which has mementoes of his son’s achievements all over the place, definitely appreciate how he’s playing. The shop figures to be a hub of activity again this weekend, when the community gathers to discuss any range of topics and especially Smith, who believes that success will bring its own recognition.

”All I do is just try to play hard and do whatever I can for our team to get a victory,” Smith said. ”I’ve learned since being at the University of Louisville that nothing matters but winning. … So, winning has been the only thing that’s been driving me to play well.”


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