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Guts, grief and glory: U of L’s Russ Smith and Chris Jones take down SMU

by Mark Coomes

Cards Coach Rick Pitino

Cards Coach Rick Pitino

Who says people can’t change?

The Rick Pitino I covered at the University of Kentucky would’ve ax-murdered Russ Smith, strewn his remains atop New Circle Road and laughed like Jack Nicholson at every set of whirling Goodyears that splattered a chunk.

But Pitino not only grew to accept and enable the wildest child in contemporary college basketball, he has embraced Smith’s mercurial doppelganger, Chris Jones, too.

Wednesday night in Dallas, Pitino’s sorely tested patience finally paid off.

Chrisdiculous buried No. 18 SMU under a Vesuvian eruption of heedless, fearless plays. The pair combined for 47 points, eight steals, eight rebounds and seven assists to lead the University of Louisville to its most impressive win of the season.

The Cardinals were down 14 points before the Secret Service even got Dubya, Laura and Jenna comfortably settled in their courtside seats. Thanks to Chrisdiculous, the Cards rallied to a 13-point win, 84-71.

Jones scored 13 of his career-high 21 points in the first half, singlehandedly keeping U of L in the game. Smith scored 22 of his 26 in the second half, most of them on jumpers launched from the vicinity of Prairie Chapel Ranch.

It’s a wonder POTUS 43 didn’t have the gunners tried for treason.

The George W. Bush Presidential Library is next door to tiny Moody Coliseum, which stands just a few miles from the former First Couple’s Dallas home. The Bushes and their Cowboy pals – Troy Aikman, Tony Romo and Jerry Jones – didn’t wedge themselves into that 7,000-seat gym expecting to see the home team blindfolded for a firing squad.

The Mustangs had won 15 consecutive home games, three over ranked teams. Their surprising return to the top 25 has attracted new fans whose hootin’ and hollerin’ have turned a bandbox into a pillbox.

The rowdy commentary frequently strays from the precepts of SMU’s chartering body, the United Methodist Church. Seems the chichi little private school has developed a serious Moody disorder.

“They must be on medication, these people,” Pitino told WHAS radio announcer Bob Valvano. “I was almost embarrassed for them.”

The Cards embarrassed themselves over the first 13 minutes by blundering to a 26-12 deficit. Jones, Smith and senior Luke Hancock had just missed three squirrely shots that would have made Louisville’s coach apoplectic in his Big Blue days.

Pitino demanded utmost precision back then. Guys were yanked for taking shots a step inside the three-point line even if the thing went in. But two years ago at U of L, Pitino found himself so desperate for firepower that he had little choice but to let an explosive but undisciplined sophomore fling shots that would’ve led to the summary executions of Travis Ford and Tony Delk.

Russ Smith

Russ Smith

Russdiculous was born.

Smith gradually learned how to help more than hinder, and the Cardinals stormed to an unexpected berth in the 2012 Final Four. Pitino, almost in spite of himself, liked what he saw. He liked it so much that he dealt himself another wild Card in 2013.

As Smith blossomed last season into a third-team All-American, Pitino signed a shoot-first, ask-questions-later point guard from the junior college ranks. Say hello to Chris Jones.

You can, however, have too much of a good thing.

At times this season, U of L has struggled to accommodate the redundancies of Russ and Russ 2.0. The clones have clicked on occasion – most notably against North Carolina and Kentucky, whom they burned for 56 and 37 points, respectively – but more often they were gears that wouldn’t mesh.

Jones has taken the worst of it, both in minutes played and fans alienated. Vox pop pined for freshman guard Terry Rozier, the backup quarterback who could do no wrong.

Pitino knew better. Hard to believe, him being in the Hall of Fame and all.

It’s hard to say the gears truly meshed on Wednesday night. It was more a case of Jones carrying the Cards in one half and Smith in the other. But they shared the floor (and the ball) for most of both periods and rarely got in each other’s way.

So the Mustangs found themselves on the business end of a cold-blooded, double-barreled shooting machine.

Smith and Jones went Smith & Wesson and gunned down SMU. From the field and the foul line, they fired 36 shots and made 22. Thirteen shots rained from three-point range; 10 hit the bull’s eye.

The co-explosions against Carolina and Kentucky ended in two troubling losses. That the duo detonated at all Wednesday night, let alone produced a win, was a minor miracle times two.

When Smith wasn’t chucking up shots, he was upchucking dinner. His stomach had disputed him all day. During the game, Smith repeatedly vomited in a courtside waste basket, but it brought no relief at all.

“Looking at the garbage can made me want to puke even more,” he said.

Jones, it turns out, was even sicker.

Last Saturday, Jones endured his worst game as a collegian, missing nine of 10 shots in a loss to his hometown team, the Memphis Tigers. Being fitted for goat horns was the least of his worries. His stepbrother, Demetrius Ray, was shot and killed that day.

Last March, after U of L strafed Duke to return to the Final Four, Mike Krzyzewski said of Russ Smith, “(He) plays with great heart. … If I need a transplant, I hope he would give me his.”

I bet Krzyzewski would gladly accept a donation from Chris Jones as well.

The players and coaches at U of L and UK don’t have to time to whine about cold weather. They might not even notice. We turn up the heat on them all winter, then fire the afterburners in March.

We forget sometimes that these are real people. Their stomachs hurt. Their hearts ache. Their hip joints, in the case of John Calipari, seethe with pain.

These men, young and old, put up with more than we know. And often more than they deserve.

We complain. For the most part, they don’t. They just put up and shut up. The show must go on.

Last night’s show was a good one. Chrisdiculously good.

It might not get any better. And that’s OK.

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