LOUISVILLE, Ky.—It would have been easy for Louisville to overlook its final test before heading into the Cardinals' rivalry meeting with Kentucky this Saturday.
After all, Rick Pitino's squad has dropped the game before squaring off with the Wildcats three years running—to Massachusetts, Cincinnati, and UNLV.
But things are different this year.
Pitino's Cardinals—famous for losing to lesser non-conference opponents—dropped their only true away game at UNLV and lost two in a row at home, to Charlotte and Western Carolina. Now, instead of recovering thanks to the talents of former Cardinals Terrence Williams and Earl Clark, Louisville can't get by on skill alone.
And overlooking opponents is a thing of the past—especially entering Big East Conference play, where Pitino said he and the Cardinals are taking things one game at a time, even if Kentucky is three days away.
The Cardinals blew a 10-point lead to close the first half of Wednesday night's conference opener against USF up only 32-31, but pieced together a 15-point run in the second half and went on to tame the Bulls, 73-52.
“This is a Big East game,” Pitino said. “This is not the Metro, and this is not Conference USA. This is the Big East.
“If you've known me for the past 17 years, you know I handle Radford and Charlotte the same way.”
Before Louisville ever took the floor with USF, Pitino made it clear that the focus wasn't on Kentucky, but rather winning a Big East game and crawling back to national attention. The Cardinals started the season in the Top 25 but fell out, bringing about the possibility of a trip to the NIT.
Senior guard Edgar Sosa was in line with his coach's thinking, as he has been since being called out by Pitino this time last year for playing selfishly. Sosa said the team realizes what a victory over a 10-win USF team would do for Louisville's RPI compared to a loss to No. 3 Kentucky.
“A Big East game is much more important than a non-conference game,” Sosa said.
Sosa led the Cardinals with 16 points Wednesday night and added five assists, aiding Pitino's effort to turn a slow start around one game at a time.
Pitino said he sees progression away from what will soon turn into a battle with the NCAA Tournament bubble, but it's slight—and that's why a game-by-game approach is so important.
“I think we're taking baby steps,” Pitino said. “I don't think we're anywhere near where I'd like to see us be, but we're improving. We are getting better. We're just taking baby steps.”
With less than three days before Louisville faces 14-0 Kentucky, it could take more than baby steps to overcome John Wall's speed or Patrick Patterson's size. The Wildcats' depth poses problems for the Cardinals, as well.
So after the final buzzer, when the locker rooms opened and Pitino loosened his collar, Kentucky was the main topic of conversation—and the Cardinals knew all about their next foe.
How will Pitino be welcomed to Rupp Arena after his off-court troubles? Can the Cardinals press Kentucky's John Wall? Will a tough road environment shake a young Louisville team?
The Cardinals didn't have the answers, but they know the magnitude of what Saturday's game carries.
“You can't get caught up in the crowd because they hate you,” senior guard Jerry Smith said. “There's 24,000 just yelling. They're going to be nuts.”
What worries Sosa the most is that even Louisville fans aren't confident about the impending outcome.
“I think there's even a couple U of L fans—not to say that the U of L fans aren't loyal—that think there's just a small chance that we're going to win this game,” Sosa said.
But it's the fans that have been looking ahead to Louisville vs. Kentucky the longest.
They've ponied up for tickets. They've marked Jan. 2 on the calendar. They'll travel an hour from Louisville, Ky., to Lexington, Ky., into enemy territory at Rupp Arena.
And now the players can join them, officially allowed to reign in their focus on the Wildcats without a chance of overlooking them.
Why? Because that's the next game, and Louisville is taking this season a game at a time.