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Rising Star: Louisville Junior Russ Smith

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(credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

(credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

By Mark Chalifoux

A Louisville National Championship seems inevitable now. The Cardinals are the strongest team remaining and now have the emotional component of playing for an injured teammate after Kevin Ware’s gruesome injury Sunday. They have NBA prospects dotting their roster but there’s one player who has been the most integral to their success yet still gets occasionally overlooked and that’s guard Russ Smith.

Russ Smith, nicknamed Russdiculous for his frenetic style of play, has been simply wonderful in the tournament. Smith is a gifted scorer and a playmaker on defense (as evidenced by his 14 steals in the tournament) and has been the real driving force behind Louisville’s rise to the Final Four.

The 6-foot 1-inch junior guard from Brooklyn has averaged almost 19 points per game this season, but he has stepped his game up to another level in the tournament, averaging 26 points per game and shooting near 50 percent. He’s getting to the foul line at an absurd rate (10 or more free throws in his last three games) and his unconventional style has been near impossible for other teams to slow down.

He’s also done this while battling illness this past weekend and after seeing his teammate suffer one of the most unsettling injuries in sports history. His scoring prowess (31 points against Oregon and 23 against Duke last weekend) has always made him a fan favorite but Smith is starting to turn some heads in the NBA with his play in the tournament.

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The knocks against him aren’t unfamiliar; he plays off the ball for Louisville and would have to play point guard in the NBA. His play at the point for the Cardinals has been less than inspiring. He’s not the greatest passer or the best decision maker, but his athletic ability has bailed him out in the college level because he can blow past defenders.

His defense stands for itself, however. Louisville is a tremendous defensive team and Smith is an absolute terror for opposing guards. His defense will help set him apart from other guards, but most scouts went into the tournament with plenty of doubts about Smith’s pro potential. Some of them have to do with his inconsistent outside shooting as well.

Smith has done all he can to change hearts and minds with his dominating play in the tournament. His head coach Rick Pitino has been trying to help change minds about him as well, calling him a poor man’s Allen Iverson, a description some pundits are starting to warm too.

One thing is for sure. We have not seen the best of Russ Smith just yet. As stellar as he’s been throughout the season and even more so in the tournament, Smith is poised to really break out in the Final Four. He’s a big time player and his play will decide just how easy it will be for Louisville to cut down the nets.

Russ Smith ties a career high in win over 12-seeded Oregon to advance to the Elite 8:

Mark Chalifoux is a college basketball contributor for CBS Local Digital Media and can be reached at mark.chalifoux@gmail.com and @markchalifoux on Twitter.

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