- The Golden Gophers came prepared for the obvious storyline surrounding their tournament opener, and there was no hint of distraction.
DES MOINES, Iowa — While there could not have been lower-hanging fruit, there were two simple ways to look at the the selection committee’s pairing of Louisville and Minnesota. You could fixate on the NCAA having a twisted sense of humor. Conversely, you’d wonder what they had to gain from rekindled (if fleeting) attention paid to the scandal that led to Rick Pitino’s ouster from the Cardinals’ head coaching position in 2017. It turned out that pitting Richard Pitino’s team against the one his father coached (and where he personally served two stints as an assistant, lest we forget) produced what was a mostly well-played game of basketball.
Tenth-seeded Minnesota pulled off Thursday what was an upset in name only and a meeting of well-matched teams, with a commanding second-half performance and 86–76 win. Gophers freshman Gabe Kalscheur took a star turn with 24 points, eight rebounds and five made threes, his team followed suit in draining 11 triples (double their per-game average), and an athletic frontline of Jordan Murphy and Daniel Oturu helped spur 17 second-chance points. They’ll face Michigan State or Bradley on Saturday.
Pitino emphasized on Wednesday that his focus had been on the game, although he admitted there was some resonance: “I think when you see Louisville pop up you are more about O.K., what am I going to say to the media? How am I going to lie to the media? I think you have to be prepared for those questions.”
He came ready, and as he reiterated postgame, the focus belonged to the players, not Rick, who is coaching over in Greece amid an ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit against his former employer. “I’m truthful with it. I'm not being diplomatic. It wasn’t about that,” Pitino said. “The focus was on preparing. It didn't matter who we played. ... It really is not anything extra. That's always been my mentality. I try not to get too high. I try not to get too low.”
It was an approach, and a matchup, that wound up favoring the Gophers. With Des Moines just a few hours from Minneapolis, a sizable contingent of Minnesota faithful packed the lower bowl and were certainly heard. The Gophers clamped down when it mattered, came out at halftime and extended their lead from five to 12 at the under-16 timeout, and rode Amir Coffey’s steady ball-handling amid waves of full-court pressure.
At the end, it was Louisville head coach Chris Mack who delivered the most pointed words, which came during Wednesday’s lead-in availability as the controversy touched both sides. “I think the committee could have probably had a little bit more self-awareness so we don’t have to be up here answering these type of questions,” Mack said. “But, you know, I can’t control that.”
Minnesota came in fresh off a polarizing pair of games at the Big Ten tournament, upsetting Purdue for the second time this season, then rolling over against Michigan’s best effort in the semifinal. “I think it's all confidence, honestly,” Jordan Murphy said. I think it's all mentality and once we have the right mindset going into the games and we're confident locked in, I think there are very few teams that can stop us and you saw that today.”
And so, Rick Pitino’s ghost came and went. It’s not walking through that door.