A corner room on the sixth floor of Athletes Village erupted with cheers on Selection Sunday when the Gophers, along with family and friends, found out they were one of 68 teams bound for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Coach Richard Pitino’s first reaction seemed to be one of surprise, though, when the team’s opponent was announced: Louisville, in a 7-10 matchup Thursday in Des Moines.
He displayed a brief open-mouthed stare, followed with an awkward grin. His arms remained crossed for a few seconds while his players clapped and shouted about 10th-seeded Minnesota making the tournament for the second time in three years. He soon joined in their excitement.
Louisville. Of all teams …
Pitino twice was an assistant at Louisville before coming to Minnesota, coaching under his Hall of Fame father, Rick. Two years ago, Richard Pitino breathed a sigh of relief during the Selection Show when the selection committee chose not to draw up a father-and-son matchup. This time, the Gophers-Cardinals matchup came true.
“It’s not going to be about me,” Pitino said Sunday. “I’m not going to be ‘It’s revenge’ or anything like that. It’s about our players, it’s about this program. We worked really, really hard to put ourselves in position to be one of the 19 percent that gets to make the NCAA tournament in college basketball.”
In 2017, it would have been father vs. son, a difficult scenario for that family. This year’s matchup could be awkward for different reasons, after the nasty breakup of Rick Pitino and Louisville. Rick Pitino called it an unjust firing in October 2017, following a former assistant’s link to the FBI probe and college hoops recruiting scandal. The elder Pitino is in the process of suing his former employer for breach of contract for nearly $40 million.
“It’s not going to be about me. I’m not going to be ‘It’s revenge’ or anything like that. It’s about our players, it’s about this program.”
Minnesota head coach
Yet the primary focus for Richard Pitino will be on how the Gophers (21-13) can take advantage of the moment they created by winning more than losing in the past two weeks. They were able to enjoy Sunday after an uneven season.
“Two out of the last three years is something that we’re really proud of,” Pitino said. “… This is what you dream of as a coach. I know these guys dream of it as players.”
Louisville finished 20-13, 10-8 in the ACC, but is 4-7 since Feb. 1. Those four victories came against Notre Dame (twice), Clemson and Virginia Tech, and only Virginia Tech is a tournament team in that group.
The Gophers, conversely, improved later in the season and picked up four key wins late, starting with a victory at Northwestern on Feb. 28.
Jordan Murphy, an All-Big Ten senior forward, made the all-tournament team in Chicago. Amir Coffey, a junior guard, also has been an offensive force, with five consecutive 20-point plus games down the stretch to keep the Gophers afloat.
“All of us were excited to just make it to the tournament,” Murphy said. “Just to make it this far this season knowing everything we’ve gone through, knowing the adversity we faced. … I was really, really happy to be in.”
The main story line surely will be Pitino’s ties to the Cardinals. He was an assistant at Louisville from 2007-09, and returned for another season, 2011-12, when they made the Final Four. Rick has since been supporting his son, often coming to Gophers games.
Athletic director Mark Coyle isn’t worried about that angle being a distraction. He’s proud of what the Gophers have accomplished, and pleased fans can easily travel to support the team in Des Moines.
“It’s great access for our fans to come. March Madness is such a special time,” Coyle said. “We hope Gophers fans get down there and make that arena a home-court advantage.”