The University of Louisville basketball team is set to take the floor tomorrow afternoon to see their first action since last Saturday's win over Florida International. The 85-56 victory was the team's first true road game of the 2013-2014 season.
Head coach Rick Pitino admitted that the trip was strategically scheduled, as the team's next opponent will be their most bitter rival: The University of Kentucky.
"It was a good experience for our guys to get away and just have some fun paying attention to a road game," Pitino told the media at his Friday press conference.
"Get some time to spend time with their families and get back in time for a big rivalry game. We're looking forward to the challenge."
The No. 4-ranked Cardinals (11-1) enter the game on a six-game winning streak, and as slight favorites against the No. 18 Wildcats (9-3). Kentucky holds the lead in the historic rivalry's series by a mark of 30-15.
Having spent eight seasons as head coach at Kentucky and 13 as the head man in Louisville, Pitino has seen the rivalry from both sides, and understands the magnitude of what is arguably the nation's biggest non-conference game.
"We know when we play Kentucky they will be emotionally ready, they will be physically ready, their crowd will be ready," Pitino said.
"When I was at Kentucky, we weren't going to sneak up on Louisville, and Louisville's not going to sneak up on Kentucky. You're going to have people physically and emotionally ready to play the game."
While it's no secret that the game holds a sense of special significance to Pitino, who has spent more than 20 years between the two schools, the team's players downplay the rivalry narrative.
"For me, it's another game," said senior guard Russ Smith. "It's obviously a big game. I'm not going to beat (around) the bush.
"I'm from New York. I know it's a big game for the guys from Kentucky, so I kind of play for them, play for my town, play for my school.
"For me, I treat it like any other (game.)"
While Smith, who leads the Cardinals in scoring this season at 16.8 points per game, doesn't place extra importance on facing the Wildcats, he does seem to enjoy playing in their arena.
In his last three games in Rupp Arena, Smith has scored a combined 80 points- He went for 30 in Louisville's Dec. 2011 loss to the Wildcats, and scored 23 and 27 against North Carolina A&T and Colorado State, respectively, in last year's NCAA Tournament.
Rivalry aside, the game does present a unique opportunity for both teams: a chance to seize their first quality win of the season.
Faced with a fairly weak non-conference schedule, Louisville let its lone shot at a quality win slip away by losing to No. 19 North Carolina in mid-Dec. With losses to No. 5 Michigan State, No. 11 Baylor, and No. 19 North Carolina, Kentucky has yet to beat a ranked team.
"We're both going to have quality wins before March," Pitino said. "So, we know it's a big game."