Des Moines – Rick Pitino was 34 when he first coached a team to an NCAA tournament victory, launching underdog Providence on a stunning run to the Final Four in 1987.
Rick’s son on Thursday earned his first NCAA tournament victory at the age of 36, honoring his father by beating Louisville, where Rick was a legend and Richard his assistant.
Louisville fired Rick amid a federal corruption probe and allegations of all sorts of sordid rule-breaking. Thursday, Richard coached Minnesota to an 86-76 victory over Louisville and Rick’s replacement, Chris Mack.
Richard beating Louisville in the first round of the tournament should not be viewed as some sort of righteous vengeance. Richard refused to play that game all week, even after the Gophers had dribbled out the clock on their second official NCAA tourney victory since 1990.
Let’s just say that as the game ended, if you listened closely, you could hear someone with a New York accent screaming “Opa!” from 6,000 miles away.
Rick Pitino is coaching in Greece, so he couldn’t make it to the Wells Fargo Center in Des Moines. Had he made it, he would have enjoyed watching his son out-coach his replacement.
Mack is a proven winner. He took Xavier to four Sweet 16s. He took over a power program featuring a talented and veteran roster.
On Feb. 1, Louisville was 16-5.
Then Mack lost nine of his last 13 games.
Thursday, his seventh-seeded Cardinals frequently looked uncertain against the 10th-seeded Gophers.
On Feb. 27, the Gophers were 17-11 and a tournament bid was hardly guaranteed. They have won five of seven since then, including two victories over Purdue and one over Louisville.
Louisville entered the game with a dramatic advantage from the three-point line. The Gophers swarmed Cardinals shooters and easily created open shots for their one, true three-point shooter — Gabe Kalscheur.
Louisville starters made five of their 17 three-point shots. Kalscheur went 5-for-11. The Gophers inverted Louisville’s supposed advantages and scored with ease after a sluggish start.
“This past week of prep has been pretty good for us,” Gophers guard Amir Coffey said. “We ran over all of their plays, watched a lot of film. I felt like we were ready for anything they were going to throw at us.”
“I don’t think anybody in here is surprised,” forward Jarvis Omersa said. “We were the more physical team, the better team. The results are what the results are.”
Pitino was right to minimize the Louisville connection. He was right to emphasize the importance of the tournament to his players, the fans and the university. He was also within his rights to make a celebratory call to his father.
“I’m truthful with it,” Pitino said. “I’m really not being diplomatic. It really wasn’t about that. It’s very hard to get into the tournament, especially in our league. ... The focus was on preparing. It didn’t matter who we played.”
“He downplayed it,” Coffey said. “He made it about the game. But I’m sure he’s feeling pretty good inside.”
Pitino has gone through the usual Minnesota coaching cycle: Vocal Gophers fans questioned why he was hired, then at the first glimpse of success feared he’d leave for a more successful program, then wondered why he was still here after some scandals and failures.
Winning a tournament game with a young team moves Pitino into a new phase of his career. He just beat Mack and Louisville handily for a school that has enjoyed little unsullied basketball success.
He did so with his most accomplished player, Jordan Murphy, hampered by back spasms in the second half, and while playing three true freshmen and a point guard who was recruited as a wing.
Pitino is signed through the 2021-22 season. Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle might want to add a couple of years. Minnesota doesn’t want to be the school that spent 10 years preparing Pitino to win somewhere else.
Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org