COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Louisville’s Smith key for No. 1 overall seed Cardinals

Louisville’s Russ Smith, center, scored 27 points in Saturday’s win against Colorado State, sending the No. 1 seed Cardinals into the Sweet 16, where they will play No. 12 seed Oregon.

Louisville’s Russ Smith, center, scored 27 points in Saturday’s win against Colorado State, sending the No. 1 seed Cardinals into the Sweet 16, where they will play No. 12 seed Oregon.

LOUISVILLE — Russ Smith came off the bench for Louisville last season, when the Cardinals lost in the Final Four to archrival and eventual champion Kentucky.

To hear Cardinals’ coach Rick Pitino tell it, that was a different year and a different player. It’s just now that Smith’s story is only beginning to be told because of big-time performances on a grand stage.

The 6-foot-1 junior averaged 25 points in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament last weekend, and he’d much rather have you hear about his 15 steals in the postseason, including the Big East tournament.

For all the production, Smith has gone relatively unnoticed, yet to be named to a national first- or second-team All-American list.

“He picks up full court, he’s always looking for a steal, off the ball he’s denying, then he’s running pick and rolls, then he’s cutting, then he’s scoring. You know what type of shape you have to be in to play like Peyton Siva and Russ Smith do?” Pitino remarked.

“So I don’t think it’s any slight to Russ. I just think he’s a great basketball player. I’m fortunate enough to coach him. He’s going to be a really good NBA player because defensively and offensively with a 24-second clock and what I call today an 18-second shot clock, that’s what the pros are all about, a guy like Russ Smith is really hell.”

With Smith and Siva at the controls, the Cardinals (31-5) are hailed as the team to beat in the Midwest, the top overall seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Oregon, seeded 12th, stands out of a regional semifinal bracket that also has No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Michigan State. The Ducks have turned heads in two tournament games, and not just with their metallic green and gold uniforms.

“I mean, at the beginning of the season they had us as a we were going to finish seventh in the Pac-12,” said Oregon forward Arsalan Kazemi of preseason media expectations. “We proved them wrong and we came (to San Jose). And we just decided as a team we’re going to go out there and we don’t care who we’re going to play. As I said before, it’s 64 great teams and they all can play. And it was kind of like a four team tournament for us, that we had to win the championship here. I think we beat the two teams we were supposed to beat. And we have to look forward from here and play Louisville next.”

Oregon coach Dana Altman said he needs better defense from the Ducks after a 74-57 win over No. 4 seed St. Louis. The Ducks don’t oppose a frenetic pace, and Altman said last season that the best way to counter-punch against pressure defense is to put the pressure back on them -- by consistently breaking the press and capitalizing on three-on-two or two-on-one fastbreak chances.

Will the Ducks have the stamina to sustain the type of pressure that makes Louisville’s constricting defense click?

“If coach is not tired, then we can’t be tired,” Smith said. “We get all our energy and fearlessness from coach. He drives us every day, and, you know, (if) we let him down, we feel like we’re letting all of us down, each other, the whole Louisville, our staff and trainers. We just go out there, play with tremendous effort and that will come from our coach.”

Duke and Michigan State meet in the main event slot in Indianapolis on Friday at 9:45 p.m. ET. The powerhouses roll into Lucas Oil Stadium for the regional semifinal banged up. Keith Appling (left knee, right shoulder) isn’t expected to be full strength, but coach Tom Izzo said not to bet against the Spartans’ leading scorer (13.3 points per game).

“I am anxious today to see whether it bothers him shooting, because it is his right arm. That’s the only thing that’s left, but he shot free throws on that yesterday and didn’t seem to have any problems,” Izzo said.

Duke’s Seth Curry (shin) struggled with his shot against Creighton in Sunday’s 66-50 victory and has been less effective in games following limited rest of two days or less. Forward Ryan Kelly said he’s recovered from a right foot injury that kept him out of the lineup for almost two months, but he’s still wearing a stabilizing boot when he’s not on the basketball court.

“It’s feeling OK,” said Curry, who had 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting Friday against Albany but went 5 of 15 against Creighton. “It’s getting a little bit better as the year has gone along, and we’re doing a great job of just getting it ready for the next day, next game. Just quick turnarounds.”

Minnesota fires Smith

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith was fired Monday on the heels of the Gophers’ second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament.

Smith compiled a 124-81 record, including 46-62 in the Big Ten, in his six years as Golden Gophers coach.

Minnesota won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament last week against UCLA, but new athletic director Norwood Teague decided to part ways with the 61-year-old Smith and buy out his contract.

“Tubby has had a long and distinguished career and we feel it’s time for a fresh set of eyes for our student-athletes and our program in general,” Teague said. “We are grateful to Tubby and his entire staff for their hard work and dedication to this university, our students and the entire Minnesota community.”

Minnesota gave Smith a three-year contract extension through the 2016-17 season last summer. He is making nearly $2 million per year.

Teague and assistant AD Mike Ellis hired Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth in 2009 and will reportedly try to bring him to Minnesota to replace Smith. Smart has built VCU into a mid-major power and has turned down other offers, opting to remain with the Rams.

Smith took Minnesota to the NCAA Tournament in three of his six seasons. The tournament win over UCLA was the Gophers’ first in Smith’s tenure. They started the season at 15-1, before falling in 12 of their last 18 games. Minnesota, a No. 11 seed, upset No. 6 UCLA and then lost to No. 3 Florida to finish 21-13.

Smith won a national championship in his first year at Kentucky in 1998 and is 511-226 over his 22-year coaching career, which also includes stints with Tulsa and Georgia. He arrived at Minnesota in 2007.

“I want to thank the University of Minnesota and the people of Minnesota for giving me the opportunity to lead the Golden Gopher basketball program for six years,” Smith said in a statement. “Our staff did things the right way and will leave knowing that the program is in far better shape than when we arrived.”

Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders is also expected to emerge as a candidate, as well as Marquette coach Buzz Williams.

The Gophers will lose frontcourt players Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams but expect to return guards Andre and Austin Hollins.

Georgia Southern joins Sun Belt

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, both of whom are stepping up to FBS classification in football, will join the Sun Belt Conference in all sports beginning in 2015, ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reported.

The two programs are moving out of FCS (formerly Division I-AA) status and will be ineligible for the FCS championship in 2013.

They will also be ineligible for a Sun Belt title or FBS postseason play as they transition to the FBS level next year.

Adding Georgia Southern and Appalachian State would give the Sun Belt 10 football members and 12 basketball members.

George Mason will join A-10

The Atlantic 10 Conference, which is losing several of its top basketball programs this summer, will fill one of the vacancies Monday.

George Mason will join the Atlantic 10 as of July, multiple media outlets reported.

The Patriots will end their 28-year affiliation with the Colonial Athletic Conference. George Mason athletics might be best known for the men’s basketball team’s run to the 2006 Final Four.

Butler and Xavier will leave the A-10 to join the “Catholic 7” as part of the new Big East Conference next season. Temple is joining the football-playing members of the old Big East in a conference that has yet to announce its name. Charlotte is exiting the A-10 to participate in Conference USA.

Five A-10 teams were in the NCAA Tournament this year, and each won at least one game. Only one CAA team, James Madison, was in the field, and it had to win a First Four game just to earn a No. 16 seed. After beating LIU Brooklyn, James Madison lost 83-62 to top-seeded Indiana in the second round.

George Mason’s departure from the CAA follows those of Georgia State, which is heading to the Sun Belt Conference, and Old Dominion, which will join Conference USA. Virginia Commonwealth transferred from the CAA to the A-10 for the 2012-13 season.

According to the Washington Post, George Mason turned down an opportunity to join the A-10 last year before reversing course this year.