The No. 15 Cardinals have eight games remaining and find themselves, surprisingly, in the thick of the Big East title race. Pittsburgh sits atop the league standings with one loss, good for a two-game lead in the loss column over Notre Dame, Villanova and Louisville.
That's why tonight's game in South Bend between the No. 8 Irish and the Cardinals is so important. The winner will keep pace with the Panthers in the regular-season championship race, in addition to padding its NCAA Tournament resume.
"We feel it's a great opportunity going up there to get a big-time road win," Smith said. "We're going to be together going up there and we're going to play hard no matter what happens."
Notre Dame is a dangerous three-point shooting team. Five Irish players have made 19 or more three-pointers this season, led by guard Ben Hansbrough and forward Tim Abromaitis, who combined to score 50 points in the Cardinals 91-89 win in last season's double overtime thriller in Louisville. Smith, who has emerged as one of UofL's most consistent performers this season, said Louisville's focus defensively will be to get out and challenge Notre Dame's perimeter shooters.
"They've got shooters one through five, everybody can shoot," Smith said. "If we contain the three-point line it will be a totally different outcome. They have a lot of size but we'll try to beat that with our quickness."
South Bend isn't an easy place for visitors to escape with victory. Notre Dame is 14-0 at the Joyce Center this season, and pasted the Cardinals by 33 two years ago when Rick Pitino's team won the Big East championship and secured the No. 1 overall NCAA Tournament seed.
"Anybody can beat anybody badly on any given day," Smith said. "We just hope that's not our day when we go up there."
With eight games remaining, Smith says the Cardinals understand the importance of finishing strong. He knows a road win at Notre Dame could be a springboard for the Cardinals to close out the regular-season on a high note.
"The season could go either way," Smith said. "If we win this big game it would give us great confidence going into the rest of the season. A road win is a confidence booster. Winning at UConn that was a great accomplishment for us because we know we can win anywhere."
Smith, who leads the Big East in three-point percentage (.464), won't be slowed against the Irish by a deep cut above his eye that he suffered when he collided with Terrence Jennings elbow against DePaul.
"They glued it back together," Smith said. "It's fine. I've got a little gash there, but it's not a big deal."
That's good news for a team that has been forced into makeshift lineups this season because of numerous injuries. There's even more good news for Louisville tonight as leading scorer Preston Knowles returns to the lineup. Rakeem Buckles and Gorgui Dieng could also return to the lineup soon.
"This is the Big East. There are no breaks," Smith said. "When I was at Manhattan we'd look at the schedule and see Canisius and figure that's a game off. But in the Big East you have to bring it every day. We don't get tired, but sometimes when we don't have everybody it's draining."
Fortunately, the injury-plagued Cards are getting healthy just as the schedule heats up. Another good sign for Louisville late in the season: junior center Terrence Jennings is starting to give the Cardinals what they need most from him – rebounds. Jennings has grabbed at least seven rebounds in five of Louisville's past six games.
"He's playing his best basketball of the season," Smith said. "He's probably averaging eight rebounds in the last three games and about 14, 15 points. He's playing great basketball right now. He picked it up because we need him to step up big and that's what he's capable of doing for us. His motivation is higher. He gained his starting spot back and he's feeling good about himself again. He just has to be hungry and go rebound every time. That's what he does."