Even by "March Madness" standards, the University of Minnesota men's basketball team is a crazy comeback story.

Coming off perhaps their worst season ever, the Gophers posted the team's and the conference's biggest one-season turnaround on record and were rewarded with a relatively high fifth seed in the NCAA basketball tournament that starts Thursday. Along with millions of Minnesotans we applaud the team's rebound and wish them well against Middle Tennessee State — and beyond.

This unlikely comeback story has many heroes, including star guard Nate Mason, an All-Big Ten first-team player; Reggie Lynch, who made the all-defensive team; and Amir Coffey, named to the all-freshman team. Plenty of other Gophers have made key on-court contributions, too.

Meanwhile, head coach Richard Pitino's efforts earned him Big Ten Coach of the Year honors after he led the Gophers to their first tournament appearance since 2013. Another source of regional pride: the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks will make their first tourney trip ever.

Pitino's well-deserved award comes with an assist from University of Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle, who resisted calls to fire Pitino after on-court performance and off-court behavior discredited the team, and by extension the university and the state it represents.

Pitino turned both on- and off-court issues around, and now the men's basketball program is poised to build upon its success.

But first there is a big game — hopefully games — to play as the Gophers try to burrow deep into the thrilling three-week tournament.

It won't be easy.

But neither was this year's comeback, which spurs hope that this year's March Madness will bring some late-winter warmth to Minnesota's long beleaguered basketball fans.