The ultra-quick sophomore guard totaled just seven points against Notre Dame and Cincinnati in the final two games of the Big East Tournament, making just 1 of 13 shots in the semifinals and finals. Overall, Smith hit just 8 of 35 shots in four games at Madison Square Garden.
Despite his offensive struggles, Rick Pitino was pleased with Smith's play in the Big East tournament. That's because Smith, Louisville's second-leading scorer, helped the Cardinals, along with point guard Peyton Siva, turn up the heat defensively with relentless full court pressure -- the major reason for a surprising run to the title.
"You're always trying to get mosquitoes off you, away from you, that's the way those two guys played that tournament," Pitino said. "Russ didn't shoot real well, didn't score real well but I felt he played much better basketball in this tournament than he did in the regular season because he took good shots, he played great defense."
Smith never met a shot he didn't like. Despite ranking sixth in minutes played, Smith launched more shots this season than any other Cardinal. Though shot selection and decision making have been issues for Smith, Pitino thought he made progress in both areas last week. That's good news for UofL heading into their NCAA Tournament second round game against Davidson.
"I didn't think he was a very good player during the regular season," Pitino said. "He scored a lot of points but took a lot of bad shots, shot a low percentage. I felt he took all good shots (in the Big East tournament) even though he shot a low percentage. He affected the game in a positive way for us."
Mostly, though, Smith made his presence felt on defense as Pitino brought back his relentless brand of full court pressure in New York. Smith ranked third in the Big East in steals with 2.4 per game, and used his quick hands to make 11 steals in four games in New York last week. Smith had five steals in Louisville's upset of No. 9 Marquette in the quarterfinals, adding 12 points and four assists.
"I think he grew a lot defensively in New York," said Pitino. "In the Marquette game, he said, "Everybody stay at home on your man I'll dig on the big guy.' He said, 'I'll take care of it and get back to my man.' And you wouldn't think in a million years Russ would have a defensive suggestion like that. So that was a great sign. I felt he really matured as a basketball player there. He did a lot of really good things on defense to help our team win."
As Louisville prepares for Davidson, Pitino plans to keep applying full court pressure in the NCAA's. The pesky Smith figures to be a big part of those plans.
"We tell Russ if he's going to reach, reach in the backcourt because we lost to Notre Dame that way," Pitino said. "We want him to gamble in the backcourt, play solid in the front court. He's one of the few players that can make a steal in front of him…don't reach from behind and get beat."