Saturday night's third round NCAA matchup in Portland figures to be a Big East-style slugfest as the Cardinals and Lobos both rank among the nation's top defensive teams.
Louisville, which beat Davidson 69-62 in the second round Thursday, has won 13 of their last 17, including five straight. The Lobos, who knocked off Long Beach 75-68, are on a roll, too, having won 13 of the last 15, including six in a row.
"They're very physical, they play great defense and they shoot the ball extremely well," Pitino said. "They've got a deep basketball team. Fran Frascilla said (they) are a Final Four team. Anytime someone says that you know they have a lot of parts to their team."
The centerpiece for New Mexico is 6'9 center Drew Gordon, a UCLA transfer who Louisville assistant Wyking Jones lured to Albuquerque while a member of Steve Alford's coaching staff. A double-double machine, Gordon had 18 points, 13 rebounds and made 7 of 10 shots against LBSU.
Louisville's first order of business will be stopping the former McDonald's All-American in the paint. Primary responsibility will fall to 6'11 Gorgui Dieng, one of the nation's best shot blockers. A major key for the Cardinals will be keeping Dieng, who broke Pervis Ellison's single season shot blocking record, out of foul trouble. He was limited against Davidson after being whistled, perhaps incorrectly, for three first half fouls.
Chane Behanan, Louisville's 6'7 freshman power forward who had 14 points and 10 rebounds in the win over Davidson, looks forward the challenge Gordon presents inside for the Cardinals.
"In order to be a pro, you've got to stop a pro," Behanan said.
Louisville forward Kyle Kuric said the job of keeping Dieng out of foul trouble falls on the Cardinals perimeter players.
"(The key) is our guards keeping the other guards in front of them so they can't drive down on Gorgui," he said.
Nine Lobos played at least 10 minutes Thursday against LBSU, but no one was more responsible for their victory over the 49ers than freshman guard Kendall Williams. The 6'3 Williams scored 14 of his 16 points after halftime and also had a team-high five assists. Williams committed just two turnovers against LBSU in 35 minutes, but will be tested by Louisville's relentless fullcourt press.
"He can do a lot of different things," Pitino said. "He's a very good passer, very good off the bounce. He's got a terrific all-around game. He's very dangerous."
A deep and balanced team - four Lobos scored in double figures in the second round - New Mexico presents a difficult challenge for the Cardinals. The Lobos can score inside with Gordon and outside with six shooters who made at least 27 three-pointers this season. New Mexico shoots 38 percent from three and out-rebounded foes in 27 of 30 regular-season games.
"We know they've got some really good shooters, so we've got to prevent the three-point shot again," Kuric said. "They've got a very good low-post (Gordon) player. We've got to help Gorgui and stay out of foul trouble. And we've got to rebound like we've been doing."
Russ Smith said Louisville must contain 6'2 Demetrius Walker, who scored 11 points and corralled four rebounds against Long Beach St. Smith also said Louisville will be challenged by the Lobos length on the perimeter.
"Demetrius (Walker) is very good off the dribble, we've got to contain him," Smith said. "Their big guys are great inside, so we've got to help down low. And we have to respect their shooters and close out on them."
Wyking Jones, who left New Mexico for Louisville last spring, could be the Cardinals secret weapon.
"He can't hurt because he recruited some of their players and knows the guys and their personalties," Pitino said. "We're probably going to watch over 20 games on tape. My son (Richard Pitino) is going to watch every game New Mexico has played. But he (Jones) gives us a feel we wouldn't normally get."
"(Jones) helps because he knows the personnel well and some of the calls that might be made," Smith said. "He's helping us in practice and in watching film with the details. He helps us with short notice to prepare."
Though Jones can provide valuable insight on New Mexico's players and sets, Louisville's defense once again must lead the way. The Cardinals have held 13 of their past 23 opponents below 40 percent shooting, including limiting Davidson to a season-low 35 percent. The Wildcats scored just 62 points against the Cardinals - 16 below their season's average.
"The last couple years we realized we have some shortcomings….offensively and we realized if we want to win a lot of games and be a good basketball team we've got to get it done at the defensive end," Pitino said. "And the guys have done a good job at that all season. We rebounded very well (against Davidson) and did a lot of good, smart things at the defensive end. It's happened that way most of the season."