COLIN FLY,AP Sports Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville captains Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith reverted to walk-on status this season when coach Rick Pitino needed more scholarships to land a large incoming class.
It’s worked out for everyone.
Kuric and Smith haven’t missed a beat and the Cardinals are in the round of 16.
The players’ families are financially able to pay for their educations. Kuric’s father is a neurosurgeon and Smith’s brother is New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith.
Louisville has needed the added roster depth during an injury-filled season. The Cardinals (28-9) have won six straight — including a Big East tournament title and a run to the West Regional semifinals where they’ll face Michigan State (29-7) Thursday in Phoenix.
Kuric leads the Cardinals in scoring, while Smith is third.
“Everything I am here is not based on having a scholarship or not. It’s very much a team atmosphere and if I can do something to make the team better, then I’ll do it,” Kuric said. “Nobody is considered — we’re walk-ons, we’re scholarships — it doesn’t divide us in any other way but title. We don’t even think about it at all.”
Smith and Kuric both have had to overcome major challenges on the road to their success.
Kuric didn’t have any major college offers coming out of high school and Smith’s first stop was at Manhattan. Pitino said both entered his program without the guarantee of a scholarship.
“Me and Chris are both considered walk-ons and you could ask either one of us, we both say we couldn’t care less,” Kuric said. “It is what it is. We’re on a team, we’re playing, we’re starters, we’re captains and we just look at it that way. Not that we’re non-scholarship.”
They’re more than just starters and captains — they’ve been leaders on a Louisville team that’s struggled for offense.
Kuric is averaging a team-best 13 points per game with Smith averaging 9.8 as the team’s two best 3-pointer shooters in the regular rotation. The pair accounts for almost four 3-pointers a game.
When Smith transferred from Manhattan, he said many felt he was making a mistake.
Pitino said he mistook the slim Smith for a ball boy the first day he saw him shooting at the team’s facility. The 6-foof-2 Smith, who is currently listed at 195 pounds, said no one believed he’d even see the floor at Louisville, much less average 27.6 minutes per game.
“I would say the only people that would’ve thought that (I’d be a starter) were my mom, my dad, my brother and myself. Other than that, anybody else would’ve been like, ‘Oh, you don’t have a chance to play,’” Smith said. “Even the coaches at Manhattan said the same thing, ‘Why are you going there? You’ll never play.’”
Their decision to revert to walk-on status isn’t unusual — Mississippi State forward Jarvis Varnado paid his own way after testing his NBA draft stock — but it’s rare for two non-scholarship players to be playing at such a high level this late in the season.
Of the other 15 teams in the regional semifinals, none has a player that’s not on scholarship playing extended minutes.
Kuric initially had planned to walk-on at Duke out of high school before coming to Louisville.
Though Pitino said he would’ve never considered asking either Kuric or Smith to give their scholarships back if their financial situations weren’t secure, Kyle’s father said there was a brief period of uncertainty when the coach made the request.
Steven Kuric said the family needed to know that Kyle would still be a major part of the Cardinals’ plans.
“I certainly think it was a little bit of an adjustment for Kyle, but like I said, it didn’t change his status on the team and I think that was very important for him,” Steven Kuric said. “He’s very dedicated, hardworking, self-motivated in terms of basketball.
“I guess you know your children and we knew that was always going to be within him. That he would have the level of reward-success he’d have with this, we never expected that.”
Louisville also is having unexpected success.
The Cardinals are back in the round of 16 after early tournament exits the last two years. They’ve also overcome a rocky regular season that included three players suffering season-ending knee injuries. But the injuries didn’t end there, guard Peyton Siva (concussion, left ankle) and Kuric (left ankle) were also banged up.
The Cardinals started 12-0 to rise as high as No. 4 in the rankings before going 10-9 to end the regular season. They caught fire in the Big East tournament and have won six straight heading into Thursday’s matchup with the Spartans.
Kuric has been a key part of the change.
“I was worried about the offense. Shots weren’t falling, we weren’t scoring. We were having offensive problems,” Kuric said. “Then we just got back to focusing on defense, that led to us scoring even more points, getting out of the break, getting a lot of steals, and that kind of jump started our team.”
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