Russ Smith put together a dominant week to lead Louisville to an American Athletic Conference tournament title. The 6-foot point guard from Brooklyn, New York has been named NetScouts Basketball’s National Player of the Week for games through March 16th.
Smith began the tournament with 16 points (4-7 FG, 1-3 3FG), five assists, three rebounds, and two steals in only 24 minutes as Louisville cruised to a 92-31 win over Rutgers. He then went for a career-high 42 points (14-22 FG, 5-7 3FG) along with three assists and three rebounds in a 94-65 victory against Houston.
“[Russ] was brilliant, passing, getting in the lane shooting the ball,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino told the Associated Press. “A scrawny kid from Brooklyn to a big, strong, tough, 42-point scorer is an amazing performance.”
Far from finished, Smith led Louisville to a win over Connecticut to win the conference tournament. He had 19 points (7-18 FG, 1-3 3FG), five steals, and three assists in the championship.
The senior has had quite an ending to his collegiate career, averaging 18.3 points, 4.7 assists, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 40 percent from three this year. Smith can still score in bunches but this has been his most efficient season of his career. He’s also an extremely pesky defender, which makes up for his lack of size.
At the NBA level, Smith’s biggest question marks will come in his size and decision-making, but this year has certainly helped his draft stock. He’s improved as an all-around point guard with the departure of Peyton Siva, partly shown in his career-high 4.7 assists per contest. He’s a more mature floor general but remains fearless when attacking the rim. There were also questions about his jumper, but he’s shown improvement in his senior year. Smith should be a second round selection in this year’s draft.
Louisville received a four seed in the NCAA tournament but could be the favorite to come out of the Midwest region. After winning the title last year, Smith will look for the same result in his final collegiate season.
Another senior who led his team to a conference title was New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow. The Australian earned NetScouts Basketball’s International Player of the Week honors for the third time this season.
Bairstow started the week with 21 points (7-14 FG, 7-9 FT) and 10 rebounds as New Mexico beat Fresno State 93-77. He followed with 23 points (4-9 FG, 15-18 FT) and eight rebounds in a 70-67 win against Boise State. In his final Mountain West game, Bairstow had 17 points (3-8 FG, 11-14 FT) and nine rebounds as the Lobos topped San Diego State for the Mountain West tournament title. As a result, Bairstow was named the tournament MVP.
“In the regular season San Diego State was the best team,” Bairstow told the Associated Press after the game. “I think in this tournament, we were the best team. [The MVP trophy] could have gone to a number of players… It wasn’t about proving a point. You just got to understand it’s all about team success.”
The humble Bairstow has been arguably the most improved player in the country. He has a mid-range jumper while he can also face-up and attack the basket. Bairstow does a good job getting to the free throw line as well where he converts on 74 percent of his attempts. His athleticism may limit him as an NBA prospect, but he’s had a phenomenal finish to his senior year.
New Mexico might have felt slighted when it received a seven seed in the NCAA tournament, but the Lobos will certainly be looking for redemption after being upset in the Round of 64 last season.
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