Going dancing: Gophers get NCAA Tournament bid, will face Louisville Thursday

The Gopher basketball team didn’t have to wait long to learn its NCAA Tournament fate Sunday night. Less than five minutes, to be exact.

Minnesota was named in the first bracket of the NCAA Selection Show and is the No. 10 seed in the East Region. The Gophers will face No. 7-seeded Louisville at 11:15 a.m. Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s a first round match-up that certainly won’t lack storylines.

Gophers coach Richard Pitino should be ready to field dozens of questions about his Louisville connections. He was an assistant coach for the Cardinals from 2007-09 and again in the 2011-12 season before leaving for his first head coaching job at Florida International. Meanwhile his father, Rick Pitino, was the head coach at Louisville from 2001-2017 and won a national title in 2013. That since has been vacated.

Rick Pitino was suspended for the first five games of the 2017-18 season for his lack of handling a sex scandal involving escorts and recruits. He was eventually fired for cause after being implicated in an FBI investigation involving bribes to recruits. He’s currently in the middle of a $44 million lawsuit with Louisville over his firing.

Rick Pitino frequented Williams Arena to support son Richard during his first five seasons with the Gophers. Richard said Sunday it’s not about him, it’s about the Minnesota program and the players that got the Gophers to their second NCAA Tournament in three seasons.

“Has he talked about Louisville the last two years? Yeah, he has. Not in the most positive way. It’s not going to be about me. I’m not going to be “Oh it’s revenge’ or anything like that,” Richard Pitino said. “It’s about our players, it’s about this program. We worked really, really hard to put ourselves in a position to be one of the 19 percent that gets to make the NCAA Tournament. That’s what it’s going to be about. I’m excited to make it about that, that’s what it should be about.”

The Gophers (21-13) didn’t have to sit long during the NCAA Selection Show, and they won’t have to wait long to face the Cardinals. Tip-off is set for 11:15 a.m. Thursday, the first slate of games in what’s now the second round.

Minnesota and Pitino had to battle through its share of adversity to get to a comfortable spot on Selection Sunday. It started before a ball ever hit the Williams Arena floor in November. Pitino was hoping to have Marcus Carr immediately eligible after transferring from Pittsburgh following Kevin Stallings’ dismissal. But the NCAA denied Carr’s waiver, and his appeal was denied. The Gophers were without a point guard, other than Isaiah Washington.

Redshirt sophomore forward Eric Curry missed the first 13 games of the season after having knee surgery. It was on the same knee that he suffered a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus that forced him to miss the entire 2017-18 season. He played 15 games for the Gophers this year and battled a calf injury before having foot surgery that will keep him out the rest of this season.

Senior Dupree McBrayer lost his mother to cancer earlier this year, just days before the Gophers beat Nebraska on an emotioonal night for McBrayer. And now senior Matz Stockman’s status for the NCAA Tournament is in doubt. He took an elbow to the back of his head in the win over Purdue, didn’t play against Michigan due to concussion-like symptoms and was not at the team’s Selection Sunday watch party.

Despite all that adversity, the Gophers are dancing after having won four of their final six games.

“All of us were just excited to be in the tournament, to make it as far as we have this season knowing everything we’ve gone through, all the adversity we’ve faced,” senior forward Jordan Murphy said. “The big wins we have, just really, really happy to be in.”

Louisville (20-13, 10-8) enters the Big Dance not playing its greatest basketball of late. Since beating Virginia Tech on Feb. 4, the Cardinals are 3-7 in their last 10 games. Their only common opponent with Minnesota is Boston College. Minnesota lost at Boston College in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and the Cardinals split with them in ACC play.

Louisville was also 5-6 on the road and 1-3 on neutral courts this season.

The Gophers, on the other hand, won four of their last six games to lock up an at-large bid. It started with a win at Northwestern, followed by a home win over Purdue. Minnesota then beat Penn State and Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament.

It’ll be the first NCAA Tournament for freshmen Daniel Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa. It’s been a goal since they signed stay home and play for the Gophers.

“I’ve always dreamed about playing in March Madness and the NCAA Tournament. Being a part of the team and seeing our name pop up is one of the best things,” said Oturu, who is averaging 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in 33 games this season.

The reality is none of the numbers matter when first-round action tips just after 11 a.m. Thursday. When the season is on the line, it’s survive and advance. McBrayer said the seniors will likely get the team together at some point before Thursday’s game to make sure everyone on the team understands the magnitude of an elimination game.

“This is it. It’s a one-game elimination, we could be done if we lose. So we’ll probably have a talk, gather all the seniors around and this is the last go round. You’ve got to make it count,” McBrayer said.

If Minnesota does beat Louisville, it would face the winner of Michigan state/Bradley on Saturday for a trip to the Sweet 16.

It will be the final run for Minnesota seniors Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, Brock Stull, Stockman and Jarvis Johnson. After running out of gas in Saturday’s loss to Michigan, the Gophers are going to embrace the opportunity they’ve earned.

 “I think we’ve got to have fun with it, I mean I think this is a really fun time of the year. Anything can happen on any given day. I think you’ve just got to expect the unexpected and have fun,” Murphy said.