NEW ORLEANS -- Russ Smith always wanted to play for Rick Pitino. The only problem? Pitino didn't want to coach Russ Smith.
The coach had seen plenty of the diminutive, scattershot guard as a seventh- and eighth-grader at the Louisville basketball camp, where Smith was the MVP. Pitino knew Smith's father, Russ Sr., whom Pitino jokingly described as "crazy." He couldn't imagine one day putting the offspring in a Cardinals uniform.
But on the advice of assistant coach Ralph Willard, Pitino agreed to see Smith play at Molloy High School in Queens, N.Y., and eventually Willard's relentless campaign won him over.
"I never considered recruiting him," Pitino said. "Ralph kept hitting me, saying, 'That's the kid you should go after.' I said, 'Russ Smith? I knew his dad when he was Russ' age.' I said, 'He's 5-foot-8.' Ralph said, 'No, Rick, he was 5-foot-8 in the eighth grade. He's 6-foot now.'
"So I called over Russ and said, 'Come here, Russ,' and he gave me a big hug," Pitino recalled. "And I said, 'You know, Ralph, you might be right.'"
A few years later, as Louisville made its unlikely run to the 2012 Final Four, Smith's teammates would recall another hug, one he asked of his coach after a particularly vicious mid-timeout dressing-down this season. "OK, Coach," Smith said. "Now let's hug." Smith stumped Pitino with the request, but hugged him anyway. As guard Kyle Kuric would later tell it, "that's the moment when Coach just decided to accept Russ Smith."
Smith's huggable story is a fitting model for this year's Cardinals, a thoroughly random assemblage of players who differ greatly from man to man in their origins, backgrounds, high school recruiting hype and paths to the rotation of this season's most unlikely Final Four squad. Smith is the maddeningly breakneck gunner who has emerged, for better or worse, as one of Pitino's most frustrating, yet beloved players. Center Gorgui Dieng is the African prospect who learned English in six months and morphed from a shy beanpole to a philosophical shot-blocking force. Kuric is the former walk-on who earned a scholarship, then willingly gave it up. His neurosurgeon father was willing to pay tuition to allow Pitino to make 2011's big recruiting haul. Chris Smith is the oft-overlooked little brother of New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith.
Peyton Siva is the former McDonald's All-American prospect who has battled injuries and inconsistency for all four years of his career. His sudden streak of good health just before the Big East tournament has helped spur the Cardinals to their eight-game winning streak. Only freshman forward Chane Behanan -- a McDonald's All-American in his own right -- has to this point followed what might be considered a rational career trajectory. And he's just getting started.
Viewed as disparate parts, they don't look like much. For large stretches of the 2012 season, the whole wasn't all that pretty, either. But it's clear this varied group of talents and personalities is one Pitino relishes as much as any he's ever coached.
"I'm having the time of my life watching them achieve this," Pitino said. "Last year and this year have been like 1987 for me. Just a great time. Great time."
Perhaps that's why Louisville seems so loose heading into a game that would make most shiver with nerves. A Final Four matchup with overwhelming national title favorite Kentucky? A date with the nation's best team, which just so happens to be Louisville's intensely detested bête noire? There are massive stakes on the line Saturday, no less than a chance to be remembered forever in a hoops-mad state's basketball lore. Yet the Cardinals seem downright unfazed.
"We're just enjoying the opportunity to play in this thing, realizing we're even here," Siva said. "Of course we're underdogs. We're playing the No. 1 seed. It's going to be a tough game, but it's going to be a good game."
There are few rational observers who could possibly peg Louisville to upset the star-studded, juggernaut Wildcats. A guard his coach didn't want, who still drives his coach mad? A former walk-on in the starting lineup? A developing project charged with stopping Anthony Davis? Kentucky coach John Calipari has at least six NBA talents in his rotation and three likely lottery picks -- up against this Louisville team?
No, the Cardinals aren't supposed to win Saturday. But then again, they weren't supposed to be here in the first place. As they prepare to take on the latest unlikely challenge, at the very least, Pitino's team seems intent on enjoying the ride.
"We went through the Big East, we cut down nets, we're in Portland, we're in Phoenix, we get a win, we cut down nets, and suddenly we're playing Kentucky," Pitino said. "It's like, flashback -- what happened the last two weeks? How did we get here?"