INDIANAPOLIS -- Russ Smith is the engine that makes the Louisville basketball team go, so the Cardinals want him operating on all cylinders. He sputtered somewhat in UofL's first two NCAA Tournament games last week, but he declared himself rested and healthy for Friday night's Sweet 16 matchup against Kentucky.
"I'm okay. I'm alright," the senior guard said prior to Louisville's public practice Thursday afternoon in Lucas Oil Stadium. "It's been awhile, so it's about time to get back on the court. I was able to get some treatment and work on my body in the weight room. Overall, I just feel better, and I'm ready to play again."
Still, Smith acknowledged that his thumb, which he jammed in the first half against Saint Louis last Saturday, still isn't completely healed.
"Anybody who's had (a similar injury) knows what I'm dealing with," he says. But it's nothing really too medical."
Teammate Stephan Van Treese joked that "Russ is fine, he was just making excuses (last week).
"He would know about excuses," Smith shot back.
No excuses will be tolerated by either side when No. 4 UofL (31-5) and No. 8 UK collide at 9:45 p.m. Friday after No. 2 Michigan (27-8) takes on No. 11 Tennessee (24-12) at 7:15. The survivors will advance to Sunday's regional championship game, with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
A UK guard has also dealt with some injury problems. Point guard Andrew Harrison hyperextended his right elbow against Kansas State, but still scored 20 points two days later in the Wildcats' 78-76 upset of top-seeded Wichita State.
Harrison says he was so sore the day after that win he could barely lift his arm, but that most of the soreness is gone now.
"It's fine," he said. "I'll keep wearing the brace, and it has a pad on it so if I do hit it again it won't really affect it.'
UofL's backcourt of the 6-foot-1 Smith and 5-10 Chris Jones will give up considerable height to UK's Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, both of whom check in at 6-6, but UofL's backcourt duo says that isn't a big concern for them.
"I like playing against anybody -- slow guards, fast guards, quck guards. It doesn't really matter to me," Smith says. "I was raised in New York and we have them all there. So I wouldn't say their length bothers me. If you're a basketball player, you can't complain about another basketball player."
In UofL's 73-66 loss to UK on Dec. 28, Smith and Jones combined for 37 points on 14-of-33 shooting with six assists and six turnovers.
The Harrisons were successful driving to the basket against Wichita State, either scoring or drawing fouls. Andrew hit 6-of-9 shots and 7-of-9 free throws, while Aaron was 6-of-13 and 4-of-7 for 19 points.
"Kentucky plays aggressive, smashmouth basketball," Smith says. "So we'll have to be prepared for that and find a way to keep them out of the lane."
Said Jones: "They are 6-4, 6-5 and that's something you can't change. It really doesn't get to me. We just have to adapt to it. We have to change some things. I am just going to play hard defense like I have all tournament and try to force turnovers. If I force turnovers, then who cares about their length?"
Smith says Louisville's experience, with three senior starters, could be an advantage over UK's all-freshman starting lineup, but there is also a fear factor in playing against rookies.
"Experience might help more if we were playing against a bunch of sophomoes and juniors," Smith said. "Freshmen can be scary. They really play hard. When you have five or six freshmen like Kentucky has, it's very difficult sometimes to match their energy because they want to play well, want to get to the next level.
"That's what you see in this Kentucky team when you look at (Julius) Randle or see Harrison drive to the basket or the amount of energy (James) Young puts into his shot. YOu can just tell that every play matters to them and you don't really see that too much in sophomores and juniors, but you see it a lot in freshmen and seniors at this stage."
Luke Hancock also thinks the experience factor on the Cards' side might be overrated.
"They're not young guys any more," he said of the Cats. "They've been through an entire year of battles."
And now both the Cards and Cats are gearing up for yet another battle, one with an Elite Eight berth at stake. Never mind the rivalry, or UK's five wins in the last six meetings.
"It's not so much getting a win against Kentucky," Smith says. "It's not like I have six or 16 games left. I mean, man, if this was Bellarmine I'd still want to win. Same principle -- it could potentially be my last game, so obviously I don't want to lose to anybody."