Russ Smith setting MOP pace

No player has had a better NCAA tournament so far than Russ Smith. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Russ Smith is underrated. I can't explain how that's possible, exactly. Smith is, after all, the highly visible featured scorer on Louisville, and the Cardinals are, after all, the NCAA tournament's overall No. 1 seed.

But I'm still hearing some "Which Russ will we see tonight?" comments, suggesting that people think this is still 2012 NCAA tournament-variety Russ Smith that we're seeing in 2013. It is not, and the difference is huge.

In Louisville's wins over North Carolina A&T, Colorado State and Oregon, Smith has dominated the action so thoroughly that perhaps his excellence -- and therefore his team's -- has actually limited his exposure. Maybe if the Cardinals were relying on final-minute hero ball in every game, a la Ohio State, people would be tracking every possession and raving about the way Smith has played "when it matters most." Instead, Rick Pitino's men have won their tournament games by 31, 26 and eight points, and thus not one of Smith's many made shots has been celebrated as particularly noteworthy, much less iconic.

If you're a Cardinals fan, you'll take that trade. Smith has helped his team keep things good, dull and victorious in the tournament thus far. Start with the obvious: Smith has scored 81 points in three tournament games. You don't need any fancy stats to know that a star averaging 27 points a game is pretty important to his team, but what you may not know is that Pitino's 6-foot junior has elevated his game more or less across the board in the postseason. In the tournament, Smith has accounted for 38 percent of Louisville's shots during his minutes, making him far more prominent in the Cards' postseason offense than any major-conference player was during the regular season.