LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Russ Smith is staying at Louisville to chase another NCAA championship and a degree.
The 6-foot-1 guard is passing on the NBA draft to return for his senior season, aiming to become his family’s first college graduate and also win another title.
Smith’s decision contradicts father Russ Sr.’s declaration after the Cardinals’ NCAA championship win over Michigan that his son would enter the draft. Smith led Louisville (35-5) with 18.7 points per game this season, including 22.3 in the NCAA tournament.
After talking with coach Rick Pitino about his pro prospects, Smith decided Wednesday that his game needed more development. He was an all-Big East Conference first team selection along with 6-10 teammate Gorgui Dieng, who has entered his name in the draft pool.
“I’m happy I finally got it off my chest,” Smith said of his decision. “What was crazy after doing all the pros and cons of staying or going, the pros of staying were so much better than the pros of leaving.
“All my pros I put down for me leaving were very immature. You have to put the work in to get better, you have to do this, you have to do that. Those are challenges I felt like, along with coach, we both felt I’d be running way from, getting better and maturing as a player.”
Smith nonetheless agonized over the decision that seemed set in stone when his father said he had nothing left to prove in college after helping Louisville reach back-to-back Final Fours and earn the school’s first championship since 1986.
Pitino told his player to take a week to think about his decision and savor the school’s third title. Pitino, whose resume’ includes NBA stints coaching the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics, consulted league executives for feedback on Smith’s pro chances.
Their determination had Smith going in the second round on June 27 if he decided to enter the draft. Despite what NBA scouts like about Smith’s game, Pitino believes his stock will improve with 10 more pounds on his 165-pound frame along with improvements in his shot selection and assist-to-turnover ratio.
“They love his talent,” Pitino said of scouts’ opinion of Smith, “but they want to see more of those things.”
For now, Louisville and Pitino are happy to keep Smith, whose return gives the Cardinals three starters and eight regulars from their title team.
Besides starting forwards Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear, they return guard/forward Luke Hancock, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Reserves Stephan Van Treese, Montrezl Harrell and Tim Henderson are also back.
Guard Kevin Ware, who provided the rallying point in Louisville’s title run after breaking his right leg in the Midwest Regional final, said he expects to recover by next season.
Center Mangok Mathiang, at 6-10, joins the team after redshirting this season. The Cardinals have also signed 6-8 pivot man Akoy Agau, 6-4 Anton Gill, 5-10 junior college guard Chris Jones, 6-1 guard Terry Rozier and 6-3 David Levitch.
“We’ve got a great backcourt,” said Pitino, adding that his guards could improve practicing against a high-caliber guard such as Smith.
However, Smith’s return provides a huge key in maintaining the Cardinals’ up-tempo pace on both ends. Defensively, he and graduating point guard Peyton Siva (school-record 254 career steals) helped their pressure defense succeed with timely thefts leading to transition baskets that often sparked big scoring runs. Smith averaged 2.1 steals this season.
After hearing of Smith’s return, Siva tweeted, “Welp… there goes my steals record.”
The tournament showed Smith’s offensive value. Besides finishing off transition plays with his quickness and agility, Smith consistently contributed big perimeter shots for the Cardinals. His 560 shots for 748 points accounted for 24.3 percent of Louisville’s attempts and 25 percent of the offense, respectively.
Though Smith’s shot selection and decision-making earned him the nickname “Russdiculous” from Pitino, both made clear during a 45-minute news conference how much they need each other. The coach obviously noted that Louisville wouldn’t be champions without Smith, while the guard deferred to Pitino in his decision-making and the announcement.
Along with trying to help Louisville become the NCAA’s first repeat champion since Florida won consecutive titles in 2006 and 2007, Smith said becoming the first in his family to graduate ranked up there.
“I realized how much I loved playing with my teammates and how much fun it is to win,” Smith said, “and this is part of the purpose of being a national champion. Obviously, I wasn’t a clear cut first-round pick, so coming back was mainly because of coach, my teammates, the Louisville campus, the community, graduating…
“With the group we got coming back, I want to go out as a winner as well as get my degree.”