The Cardinals (27-9) have won five straight going into Saturday's game against New Mexico with a chance to advance to the regional semifinal for the first time since 2009.
It's been an up and down year for Louisville, which rose to No. 4 in the rankings in December before tumbling with five losses in seven games. The Cardinals lost three of four heading into the conference tournament.
But it appeared that something clicked when Louisville then won four straight games in four straight nights, capped by a 50-44 victory over Cincinnati in the league championship game.
Pitino said the biggest difference that he could see was that the Cardinals really had to slow down in the final two regular-season games -- losses to South Florida and Syracuse -- but he promised them they'd be able to run and press in the postseason.
But overall, the Cardinals' seesaw season was just part of the natural ebb and flow of the game."We always stay positive. We wound up winning 22 games, and with all our injuries that was a heck of a season with a top ten schedule," Pitino said. "When we were 12-0 I never really thought we were that great. When we started losing, I never thought we were really that bad. We stayed even keel and we went into the Big East tournament ready to play."
Louisville has been ousted in its opening round of the tournament for the past two years. That streak ended when the fourth-seeded Cardinals defeated Davidson 69-62 in a second-round game on Thursday.
The players said they haven't really pondered what it will mean to advance to the round of 16.
"For real, I don't really think about it," guard Russ Smith said. " I'm just out there playing."
There's a decidedly different feeling among the No. 5 seed Lobos, who have never advanced to the regional semifinals.
"This team just wants to continue to do special things, and that is the next step," coach Steve Alford said. "Those are uncharted waters for UNM. We've had a lot of fun this year, and we really don't want it to end."
New Mexico (28-6), which knocked off UNLV and San Diego State to win the Mountain West tournament, has won six straight and 13 of 15 going into the game against the Cardinals at Portland's Rose Garden. The Lobos defeated Long Beach State 75-68 in their opening round.
They'll face a considerable challenge in Louisville, considered one of the best defensive teams in the country. The Cardinals have limited opponents to an average of 38 percent shooting from the floor, and an average of just over 61 points per game.
And they have an added advantage in assistant coach Wyking Jones, who joined the team in 2010 after two years as an assistant at New Mexico.
"I feel like with Coach Jones being over there it helps us with very short notice to prepare," Smith said. "It helps us prepare faster. Rather than a day or two, we can prepare within a couple of hours of film work and with a short practice."
Led by senior guard Drew Gordon, New Mexico is averaging 73.2 points a game, while allowing opponents 59.3 points per game. Pitino was already predicting a low-scoring game.
"We need to make them go against that halfcourt defense," Alford said. "If we're in a situation where there are three on ones and four on twos all night, that's obviously going to benefit Louisville. Taking care of the ball, being aggressive and handling that press is going to be something that's obviously very important to us."
The last time Louisville and New Mexico played was in the second round of the NCAA East Regional in 1997. Louisville held off the rallying Lobos -- who missed a layup with three second left -- to win 64-63. The Cardinals went on to beat Texas before falling to North Carolina in the regional final.
Louisville won NCAA championships in 1980 and 1986. Pitino is the only coach to have led three different teams to the Final Four.