LOUISVILLE — Saturday will mark a big game between Kentucky and Louisville, but it's not the only game.
Rick Pitino, the former UK coach and current U of L coach, put that perspective on things during a Friday news conference.
"It's a big basketball game and, when you play in a great conference, you're going to have a lot of big basketball games, and you should get excited about the big basketball games," he said. "It's exciting, but we know what it is. We know that we have to get ready for Central Florida (next), and Kentucky's got to get ready for their next game. If you put everything in emotionally and you're drained, then you're in trouble.
"So it's a big game, but I coached eight years at Kentucky and I'm going on 13 (at Louisville); I've been to 21 contests. There's only been one BIG game for me, and that was when they took our national championship away two years ago (in the Final Four). That was a big thing for us. We had a shot at a national championship and they took it away. ... This is just a very big game on your schedule, and you should enjoy it. But it's much more important for the fans than it is for the players."
Senior guard Russ Smith concurred.
"For me, it's really another game," Smith said. "I'm from New York. It's obviously a big game — I'm not going to beat around the bush — but I'm from New York. I know it's a big game for the guys and the people in Kentucky, so I kind of play for them, play for my town, play for my school. It's a rivalry game. But, for me, I treat it as any other."
Pitino said that he prefers marquee matchups such as Saturday's game.
"I enjoy any big game, and this is a big game," he said. "I don't enjoy the FIU games because you worry, emotionally, whether you'll be ready. We know when we play Kentucky, they will be emotionally ready, they will be physically ready."
Of course, Kentucky (2012) and Louisville (2013) account for the last two national championships. To have them matched Saturday is "great," Pitino said.
"I think it's just awesome for a state of 3 million people to have back-to-back national champions. I think that is just incredible in a football-crazed country," he said. "So I think it's awesome that we still have some type of atmosphere like this in college basketball. It's two great traditions and two teams that right now have a shot at getting back to a Final Four if they improve as the season goes on.
"I think John (Calipari, UK's coach) would say the same thing. His team's going to have to get a lot better to be a serious contender. And I would say the same thing: We're going to have to get a lot better to be a serious contender. But we both have the ability to do that, and I think that's awesome. It's just great for our state."
This and that
■ Pitino said, "We're looking forward to the challenge," but UK poses "a number of problems for us."
"One is, they're the tallest team in America, and we have a thin frontcourt in terms of numbers. We're not overly big, so their size is going to pose some problems for us.
"They get almost 30 percent of their points from the foul line, so they drive quite a bit. And they're very physical inside and a terrific offensive rebounding team, where they're ranked very high as well. So there are a number of things that we have to do to get a victory, and it'll be a tall order."
Asked to expound on those concerns, Pitino noted that "they dribble-penetrate. They force you to help, and you wind up rotating with guards on bigs, and that's why they offensive rebound so well. As far as their size, they recruit very well."
■ Although U of L will be playing in a hostile environment, Pitino said he wasn't too concerned about nervousness.
"I've always felt that Kentucky and Kansas have the two strongest home-court advantages in college basketball, so that is a factor," he said. "... It is an overpowering place, but I think our guys responded well there in the past and I expect them to do that again."
■ Pitino said U of L's defense is "taking baby steps. There were 26 defensive mishaps in the FIU game. That's a lot. Defensively, we're not a very smart basketball team and we make a lot of mistakes because of it."
■ Pitino on UK shot-blocking whiz Willie Cauley-Stein: "He blocks two players away, as well as on the ball. He's a dangerous weapon. And it's not only that, he keeps the ball alive for transition. A lot of shot-blockers throw the ball out of bounds. ... He keeps it alive, and it leads to fast breaks."
The last word
"There's a lot of mixed marriages in this city," Pitino said, noting that husband and wife often pull for opposite teams in the UK-U of L rivalry. "They normally don't work out."
What advice would Pitino give to such a couple?
"I would just break it off now."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @MarkMaloneyHL. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com.