Cameras lined the wall beneath the large screen broadcasting the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection show. They captured the Gophers cheering, then laughing, then cheering again as the screen revealed their first-round destination and opponent.
Richard Pitino seemed to cackle before composing himself. His players snuck looks at their coach, knowing that playing against Louisville, his former employer and the scourge of his father.
The Gophers will play Louisville on Thursday in Des Moines. This information prompted players to celebrate briefly and speak diplomatically of their No. 10 seeding and difficult opponent.
Then they walked outside and threw snowballs at each other.
This is why the tournament is a joyful exercise in orchestrated chaos. These are kids taking these big shots. They’ll do their homework, maybe throw a few snowballs, then play in a tournament that makes the networks millions and turns coaches into kings.
“I am lucky,’’ Pitino said. “I’m 36 years old and I’m the head coach at a great place. “There’s not going to be one complaint from me. You’ll never hear it, because I’m really grateful to be a part of it.’’
He’s got that right.
For all the complaining Minnesotans do about the lack of male-team championships won by locals, this state plays host to a stunning number of desirable national and international sporting events.
With the Final Four scheduled for the first weekend in April at U.S. Bank Stadium, Minnesota continues a run of major events that also include the MLB All-Star Game, the Ryder Cup, the Super Bowl, the WNBA All-Star Game, frequent WNBA Finals and a new PGA Tour stop.
In an 11-month period from 1991-1992, the Twin Cities hosted a U.S. Open, a Stanley Cup Final, a Final Four, a World Series and a Super Bowl. New York Times columnist George Vecsey called Minnesota “The sports capital of the United States.’’
The Gophers’ qualifying for the tournament that will end a couple of miles from campus means we get to see the bracket through the eyes of Minnesotans like Daniel Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa.
Minneapolis played host to the Final Four twice before, at the Metrodome — in 1992 and 2001. The Gophers didn’t make the tournament either year.
That’s not surprising. According to the NCAA, the Gophers have officially made the NCAA tournament 10 times.
“In program history, that’s 10 officially, 14 unofficially,’’ Pitino said. “That’s not a lot. So for guys in that locker room to make it two out of three, they need to be proud of that.’’
For the first time, a Gophers team will begin March Madness with the dream of playing in the Final Four in Minneapolis.
Its selection is just one of many reasons to celebrate the spectacle of the tournament.
The first reason: The NCAA’s sense of humor isn’t limited to its bosses saying that they can’t afford to pay athletes.
Pitino vs. Louisville? Surely, that’s a coincidence. The pairing has nothing to do with Louisville running Rick Pitino off, or Rick’s bitterness toward the school, or Richard’s history as an assistant coach there under his father.
“It’s not going to be about me,’’ Richard Pitino said. “I’m not going to be ‘Oh, it’s revenge.’ ’’
With Rick coaching in Greece, if Richard beats Louisville he should expect to receive a large bottle of Ouzo in a package featuring a lot of unusual-looking stamps.
Can the Gophers win?
We can’t know, and that’s the point of the tournament. Minnesota and Louisville didn’t play this season. Louisville earned a higher seed but lost eight of its last 12 games. Four of those losses came against ACC powerhouses Duke, Virginia and North Carolina.
Add all of that together, and you know nothing other than you have to find a way to watch on Thursday, even if it means implanting screens on the inside of your eyelids so the boss can’t catch you.
Because you never know what will happen in March, when the kids scatter across the country and take their best shot.