Gophers won't be distracted by Pitino, Louisville drama at NCAAs

Richard Pitino says he’s a “big boy.” He’ll answer the questions about Louisville, several of which will come as Minnesota heads to Des Moines, Iowa, to face the Cardinals Thursday in the NCAA Tournament.

Pitino and the Gophers will do everything they can to not let Rick Pitino’s ugly and infamous departure from Louisville become the centerpiece of their second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years. Rick Pitino was fired for cause after being implicated in an FBI investigation involving bribes to recruits. Prior to that, he was suspended for the first five games of the 2017-18 season for a lack of handling a sex scandal between escorts and recruits.

Rick Pitino is currently in the middle of a $44 million lawsuit with Louisville over his firing. But he won’t be in Des Moines when the Gophers face Louisville. He’s in the middle of coaching a professional team in Greece.

“We really don’t care about that. That has nothing to do with it. I’m looking at the players on the team and I’m looking at the opportunity that we have to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Richard Pitino said Tuesday before his team left for Iowa. “Chris Mack’s a good coach, they’ve got really good players. Let’s go try to beat them. That’s the focus, all that other stuff, that’s a narrative that media is going to talk about. I’m not offended by it, I’m fine with answering questions about it. I’m a big boy, I can handle it and I can understand it. But we’re excited about playing a really good opponent, that’s the biggest thing.”

Pitino has translated that message to his entire team. That, and they’ve worked too hard to let an outside distraction have an effect on their first round tournament game. Rick Pitino won’t be there supporting his son, but it’s not about that for the Gophers.

“We’re not going to make it about the Pitino family. It’s about Minnesota versus Louisville, and that’s how he made it seem,” senior guard Dupree McBrayer said. “It’s not him versus his dad’s program, it’s just Minnesota versus Louisville.”

They won’t let the outside noise in. The Gophers have overcome plenty of adversity of their own to get their name called on Selection Sunday for the second time in three years.

In Jordan Murphy’s freshman year, Minnesota won just eight games and had players suspended for off-court situations. The Gophers went just 2-16 in Big Ten play.

Murphy never wavered on his decision to come to Minnesota, and stayed with Pitino despite having every reason to consider leaving after that dreadful season.

“The guys were my family, I couldn’t just abandon them when we were at a low point. I mean you can’t really abandon your real family when you guys are going through something. So why would I abandon this type of family when we’re going through something?” Murphy said. “That wouldn’t be right, and that wouldn’t be something I could sleep well with at night.”

The next season, the Gophers won 24 games and went to the NCAA Tournament. Nate Mason was slowed by a hip injury, and Akeem Springs tore his Achilles in the Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota went dancing for the first time under Richard Pitino as a No. 5 seed, then lost to Middle Tennessee State in the opening round.

Last year, the Gophers had a promising season get off to a 13-3 start, including a 2-1 start in the Big Ten. Eric Curry was lost before the season with a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus, Amir Coffey suffered a shoulder injury that later required surgery and McBrayer had a stress reaction in his left leg that essentially had him playing on one good leg for much of the Big Ten season. If that’s not enough, Reggie Lynch was suspended in-season for an alleged sexual assault, the second occurrence for him on the Minnesota campus. He was cleared of any wrongdoing in the first case.

Suddenly, Richard Pitino started appearing on lists for coaches being on the hot seat. His job status was in question after five seasons with the Gophers. There had been just one NCAA Tournament appearance, and a 32-60 Big Ten record.

It’s what makes getting to the NCAA Tournament this year that much more fulfilling for Pitino and the Gophers.

“I got little kids, I like it here. Humanize it as much as you want, I want to be here. You read things and you here things. When you see your picture up there as on the hot seat, if he doesn’t make the tournament he’s fired. I don’t know if it’s true or not, I didn’t want to ask Mark (Coyle),” Pitino said.

The adversity continued this season for the Gophers, and they keep finding ways to battle through it. Marcus Carr, who transferred to Minnesota from Pittsburgh after Kevin Stallings was fired, was declared ineligible after a transfer waiver and appeal were both denied. Curry missed the first 13 games of the season after having clean-up surgery on his knee. He played in 15 games and battled a calf injury before having to have surgery for a torn ligament in his right foot.

In one of the more emotional times of the season, McBrayer lost his mother to cancer before the Gophers beat Nebraska. Both players and Pitino now wear a “TM” patch to honor Tayra McFarlane.

Pitino does not know yet if senior center Matz Stockman will be available Thursday against Louisville, the school he transferred from two years ago. He took an elbow to the back of the head against Purdue, didn’t play against Michigan due to concussion symptoms and wasn’t at the team’s Selection Sunday watch party. He has not yet been cleared to practice.

The Gophers left via bus for Iowa Tuesday afternoon, and they’ll get plenty of questions about Rick Pitino when they arrive. The NCAA created the story line with the match-up, but the Gophers aren’t thinking about it much. They don’t have time to waste, they’re more concerned with Minnesota versus Louisville.

“We just try not to pay too much attention to it because we worked really hard to get to this point,” Murphy said. “There was times where people counted us out, not making the tournament, first four out or whatever. We worked really hard to climb ourselves back into it, so we take it with a grain of salt every story line we see.”