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NCAA Tournament: How Far Will Minnesota Advance In the East?

A closer look at the Gophers’ road to the Final Four

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The Selection Committee will swear up and down that they don’t adjust the first round games to create “interesting” matchups. Maybe there are so many connections between teams that games like Minnesota’s are inevitable, and it was just random chance that it happened here. Maybe. But I kind of doubt it.

Opening Round

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about up above, Minnesota will play Louisville in the first round in Des Moines. Minnesota’s coach is Richard Pitino, and Louisville was formerly and famously coached by Richard’s father Rick until two years ago, when a scandal involving strippers—or were they hookers?—no, wait, it was something about the FBI—actually, no, a different FBI scandal, the Adidas thing, not the Karen Sypher blackmail thing—well, there were a lot of scandals is my point.

Louisville has since cleaned house, Rick has moved on to coach in Greece, and Richard is still at Minnesota, hardly a young coaching phenom like his dad was at his age, but somebody who still looks like he might have some considerable upside in a place that’s been difficult to win at. Interestingly, Richard replaced Tubby Smith at Minnesota, after Tubby replaced Rick at Kentucky. (And then Tubby replaced Billy Clyde Gillispie at Texas Tech, after Billy Clyde replaced Tubby at Kentucky. And of course Tubby left to go to Memphis, which was where John Calipari left to go replace Billy Clyde in Lexington.)

So that’s the background. Louisville is currently coached by Chris Mack, who on the whole has done a creditable job with the Cardinals, though they have been maddeningly inconsistent throughout the year. They beat North Carolina by over 20 in Chapel Hill, then lost to them at home. They got up 20+ on Duke, only to let the Blue Devils come roaring back. They beat Michigan State but lost to Indiana. Since the Duke fiasco, they’ve beaten Clemson at home by one and Notre Dame twice, and that's it. The only consistent thing about Louisville is that they continue to find ways to lose to Virginia.

This game will come down to whether Minnesota can manufacture enough points to stay competitive. The Gophers are a bad shooting team, and the Cardinals play excellent defense, ranking in the top 20 in KenPom’s effective field goal percentage. But Louisville’s offense is less potent, and Minnesota has the greatest rebounder in the Big Ten in the last 60 years in Jordan Murphy. Second chance points and scooping up Louisville’s misses will be key.

Free throws are also (unfortunately for those of us watching at home) play a factor. Louisville is the eighth-best free throw shooting team in the country, and Minnesota is fifteenth-best at getting to the foul line. Minnesota is also unexpectedly good at keeping its opponents off the foul line.

It’s plausible that Minnesota could shoot 10 more field goals and 10 more free throws than Louisville will. If that happens, they have a good chance at winning.

If They Advance

I’m not sure why Minnesota and Louisville couldn’t have swapped spots in the bracket with Wofford and Seton Hall. Then the committee would get a possible second-round game between Louisville and Kentucky (which everyone would like to see) rather than a second-round Big Ten rematch. But as it stands, Minnesota’s likely opponent in Round 2 is the Michigan State Spartans.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already familiar with Michigan State, the team that just won the 2019 Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. Thankfully, this will be a rematch of a matchup that only occurred once in conference play. Michigan State won the only meeting in East Lansing on February 9 by 24 points.

And the Big Ten revenge tour could extend even farther. If chalk holds, the winner of Maryland-MSU would face LSU. But LSU has a suspended coach and a looming scandal. If they flame out early, the next-best team in that group of four would be Maryland. Maryland swept the season series with Minnesota, winning by fifteen on January 8 and by nine on March 8.

I’m one of those people who roots for every Big Ten team in the tournament to do well.(Except for Indiana, naturally, since I went to Purdue, and I would hope that Michigan and Michigan State fans, even if they play nice with each other, are secretly rooting for their in-state rival to lose in humiliating fashion in the first round.) To have this many Big Ten teams with the possibility of eliminating each other, particularly in a year where the conference has been as good from top to bottom as it’s ever been, is a travesty. We just spent five days in Chicago watching Big Ten teams knock each other out. Let’s let them knock out some damned ACC teams instead.

Speaking of which, if they can get past Louisville (ACC), Michigan State, and Maryland (kind of ACC... just kidding, the Terps are family now), then they would almost certainly face Duke. We’ll preview that matchup if and when we get there.

Overall

I don’t know if Minnesota needs to have a breakthrough in the tournament this season, but they need to have one at some point, or the Richard Pitino era will stagnate and fizzle out, not unlike Tim Miles at Nebraska. Why can’t that breakthrough be this year? It’s far from a guarantee, and I’d probably bet against it, but Minnesota’s road is certainly weird. And weird roads can lead to weird results.