As it turns out, bracket experts Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi might have been too optimistic about the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ resume.
Projected as an 8- or 9-seed going into Sunday, the Gophers dropped to a 10-seed in the official bracket and drew a first-round matchup with 7-seed Louisville. The drop, however, might be favorable, as it takes Minnesota away from a potential second-round matchup with a No. 1 seed.
The first-round game, scheduled for Thursday at 11:15 a.m. in Des Moines, Iowa, has a clear connection between head coach Richard Pitino and the Louisville program, where he spent three years as an assistant and his father Rick Pitino coached for 16 years.
“Some great memories, some tough memories, being an assistant coach there, being a son of a coach there,” Pitino recounted after the pairing was announced. “Obviously some great [memories], didn’t end well, which is very unfortunate, but to me the story here is about our players and our program and how the adversity that they’ve fought through. I don’t think too many people would have picked them to go to the NCAA Tournament this year.”
#Gophers play Louisville, which has the obvious Pitino connection, in Des Moines. Fans should travel well. Players groaned when they saw Michigan State as the potential next opponent. pic.twitter.com/EfC32q7MbA
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) March 17, 2019
The Gophers will be looking for their first NCAA Tournament win since 2013, when they beat UCLA as an 11-seed. The last time they faced Louisville was Nov. 14, 2014 when the Cardinals beat them 81-68 under Rick Pitino in the season opener.
Here’s everything you need to get caught up on Louisville.
Their resume: The Cardinals finished 20-13 (10-8), tying for sixth in the ACC. They went 4-11 in Quad 1 games (Minnesota went 5-10) with signature wins over Michigan State and North Carolina. They finished 22nd in the NET rankings (Minnesota was 61st). Louisville’s worst losses came against non-tournament teams Pittsburgh and Boston College, both of whom finished in the bottom five of the ACC. They lost five of their final seven games, including a second-round defeat to North Carolina in the conference tournament. Notably, they blew a 23-point lead in a home loss against Duke on Feb. 12.
Their coach: After a recruiting scandal ousted Rick Pitino from his long-held post, the Cardinals turned to former Xavier coach Chris Mack, who led the Musketeers to tournament berths in eight of nine years. He was the Xavier coach in 2010 when the sixth-seeded Musketeers beat Tubby Smith’s 11th-seeded Gophers in the first round.
Their talent: The Cardinals have a deep offensive team but few high-end scorers besides sophomore Jordan Nwora, who leads them with 17.2 points per game and 7.5 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 forward has double figures in all but three games this season and can shoot the 3-pointer at 37 percent. Junior Dwayne Sutton is their other double figure scorer with 10.2 points per game. He shoots the 3 at 36 percent. UConn transfer Steven Enoch is their leading scorer off the bench with 9.3 points per game.
Where they excel: Like Minnesota, Louisville is a strong rebounding group with the 23rd highest number of defensive rebounds in the country, though they’re less proficient on the offensive glass. In general, however, the Cardinals just know how to defend. Opponents are putting up shooting splits of 41 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3, the 28th and 46th lowest percentages in Division I. And finally, free throws. With the 10th-best free throw percentage in the country (77.5 percent), the Gophers won’t want to get in a free-throw shooting contest with the Cardinals down the stretch.
Where they struggle: As good as they are from the free-throw line, the Cardinals aren’t tremendous shooters. They rank 231st in field-goal percentage (Minnesota is 217th) and 193rd in 3-point percentage (Minnesota is — gulp — 292nd). They shoot 3s in bulk, though, averaging 25 attempts per game — nine more than Minnesota — so the Gophers will still have to defend the arc. And while opponents shoot low percentages against the Cardinals, their defense doesn’t force many turnovers, ranking 330th in steals.
Notable trends: Louisville is 3-7 in their last 10 games, forcing less than eight turnovers per game in that stretch while shooting under 30 percent from 3-point range. In the previous 10 they were 8-2, forcing 14 turnovers per game and shooting 38 percent from 3. It’s been a tale of two halves to the season for Louisville, and the Gophers might be catching them in a downward spiral.
Stay tuned to ZoneCoverage.com for more coverage leading up to Thursday’s first-round game.