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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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CP3 leads Clippers past injury-depleted Knicks

Without Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandlerand Amare Stoudemire, the New York Knicks are hardly a team that should present many problems for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Although the Clippers caused a few problems for themselves, they solved them in plenty of time to keep moving toward their franchise’s first Pacific Division title.

Chris Paul had 20 points and eight assists, Caron Butler added 14 points, and the Clippers beat the injury-depleted Knicks 93-80 Sunday in a meeting of division leaders.

Blake Griffin had 12 points and 12 rebounds for the Clippers, who shook off a turnover-plagued start and pulled away in the second half of their first home win since February 2009 over New York, silencing the cadre of taunting Knicks fans that invades Staples Center for each visit.

”We want them to be at full throttle with Melo and Tyson just for the competition of it,” said Chauncey Billups, who scored 12 points. ”When they’re not playing, it’s just human nature to have a subconscious letdown, but you have to find a way to just scrap through it.”

Jamal Crawford scored 12 points for the Clippers, who went up by 19 points in the fourth quarter and comfortably weathered New York’s final run to wrap up Los Angeles coach Vinny Del Negro’s 200th career victory.

With three days of rest following Wednesday’s discouraging home loss to Memphis, the Clippers struggled through an unsightly first half against New York, making 10 turnovers while taking a small lead. Los Angeles finally got rolling in the third quarter, with Griffin throwing down a percussive one-handed dunk on a lob from Paul during a 16-5 Clippers run.

”You want to be playing not just for the seeding, but to be ready going into the playoffs,” said Griffin, who had a strong second half in his first game since his 24th birthday. ”It’s the time when everybody’s intensity needs to be turned up, and we need to be dialed in for every single game, no matter who we’re playing.”

J.R. Smith scored 17 points and Raymond Felton had 16 for the Knicks, who played without All-Stars Anthony and Chandler in their fourth straight double-digit loss on a five-game trip. New York’s Atlantic Division lead over Brooklyn dwindled to a half-game heading into the Nets’ home game against Atlanta later Sunday.

”We’re all professionals, and sometimes you’re going to play short-handed, so you’ve got to compete, said Jason Kidd, who scored 11 points as the third-oldest player on the court. ”In that third quarter, we just lost control of the game. We’re going out there trying to win, so we’re not sacrificing anything. The biggest concern is just our health. We’ve got to get healthy first and go from there. But there’s no guarantee those guys are going to come back, so we’ve got to play with the guys we have.”

New York understandably isn’t faring well without the NBA’s second-leading scorer and its seventh-leading rebounder, but is hoping Anthony and Chandler will bounce back from injuries that wouldn’t allow them to finish the Knicks’ game against the Nuggets four days earlier.

Anthony left in the third quarter of his long-anticipated return to Denver, and eventually needed fluid drained from his right knee, making his return uncertain. Chandler bruised his left knee in Denver, and both stars missed the Knicks’ visit to Portland last Thursday night.

New York also is still without Stoudemire, who will be out for at least six more weeks after recently undergoing surgery on his right knee. The Knicks finish their trip in Utah on Monday night.

”We know we’re a few men down and we can make excuses, but we’re not going to make excuses, man,” said Kenyon Martin, who had four points and nine rebounds while starting and playing 28 minutes. ”Guys have pride. We’re going to compete every night, no matter who’s playing for us. It’s tough. We gave ourselves a chance early in the third quarter and didn’t back down, but it was an uphill battle from there.”

The Clippers are getting healthier, with Butler hitting four 3-pointers in his return to the starting lineup despite a strained left elbow. But point guard Eric Bledsoe missed his third straight game with a sore left calf, and Ronny Turiaf was inactive with a sore left knee.

Los Angeles led 79-60 before Steve Novak hit two 3-pointers during a 12-3 run. New York got within 10 points, but Paul and Lamar Odom hit key shots down the stretch.

With a nine-game lead over Golden State, the Clippers are coasting to the first division title in the franchise’s 43-year history dating back to its origin as the Buffalo Braves. With its second straight postseason trip all but certain, Los Angeles is four wins away from surpassing the single-season franchise record of 49 victories, and five home wins shy of setting that mark as well.

”It’s not tough (to stay focused), because we haven’t been playing the style that we want to play,” Paul said. ”We can get better, so it’s important for us to focus on these last 15 games.”

NOTES: Chandler, a Los Angeles native, leads the NBA in field goal percentage (.645). … Smith converted a four-point play in the final minute of the third quarter. … Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and New York’s Iman Shumpert wore green shoes for St. Patrick’s Day.

BULLS AT PACERS, 7 P.M. ET

  • Carlos Boozer will return to the lineup tonight for the Bulls after missing the previous three games with a right hamstring injury. Joakim Noah (right foot) and Kirk Hinrich (right elbow) both will miss their third straight games. Nate Robinson will start at the point for Hinrich with Taj Gibson in Noah’s spot in the middle.
  • Gibson has taken full advantage of the additional playing time created by the absences of Noah and Boozer, averaging 16.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.67 blocks in the last three, including a 19-point, 19-rebound outing Saturday in Atlanta. Jimmy Butler also has surged of late, averaging 14.9 points and .505 shooting in the last 10 games.
  • Though this is the first of three games in three nights for the Pacers, Coach Frank Vogel isn’t taking a long view. “We haven’t even talked about (the schedule),” he said. “This is a very important game for us so we’re approaching it like it’s the only game of the week.” The game originally was scheduled for Dec. 26 but was postponed by a blizzard in Indianapolis. As a result, the Pacers now have the only three-game, three-night set in the NBA this season. It’s less of an inconvenience for the Bulls, who have two nights off before their next game Thursday in Denver. The Pacers host the Hawks Tuesday and travel to Philadelphia Wednesday.
  • The Bulls bring the best road record in the NBA (14-7) into Bankers Life Fieldhouse, including a 13-3 mark against Eastern Conference teams. What makes them so good on the road? “I don’t know,” Vogel said, “but I’m interested in the formula.” Indiana is 10-16 on the road.
  • Just in case the Pacers might view the shorthanded Bulls as something less than a formidable opponent, Vogel showed extensive film from Chicago’s 93-76 thrashing of the Hawks as evidence of just how hard, and well, the Bulls played. “We know whoever’s in uniform,” he said, “they’re going to bring it for the Chicago Bulls.”