One of the first things to stand out when the NCAA tournament bracket was revealed is the first-round matchup pitting Minnesota against Louisville.
It’s not the on-court contest providing the intrigue here, but the matchup pitting Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino against Louisville on Thursday.
It’s the son of former Cardinals coach Rick Pitino taking on the school that fired his father when a shoe scandal, vacated national championship and escorts in the players’ dorm added up to too much for Louisville to stomach.
Lingering Pitino problems at Louisville
So, yeah. This one’s a bit awkward.
The selection committee claims not to take matchups into consideration. But if they wanted to drum up interest in a game, this is a solid strategy.
Pitino: ‘What am I going to say to the media?’
While the intrigue isn’t remotely relevant to the actual game, it’s an unavoidable topic that has begged questions for parties on both sides — questions both Pitino and Louisville coach Chris Mack would prefer to avoid.
"When you see Louisville pop up, you're more about, 'What am I going to say to the media? How am I going to lie to the media?' Pitino told reporters on Wednesday. "You have to be prepared for those questions.”
Richard Pitino coached at Louisville
Pitino, 36, was an assistant at Louisville, but left the school in 2012, long before scandal completely engulfed his father. After addressing the initial awkwardness attached to the matchup, Pitino focused on the glad-to-be-here approach while saying nice things about his opponent.
“There is not one part of me that isn't 1000 percent honored, appreciative, humbled by the fact that we're in the NCAA Tournament,” Pitino said. “It's a hard tournament to go to, only 19 percent of our college basketball teams get to go to it. So you never are going to hear me ever complain about anything that we play. Like I said, I got tons of respect for their program.
Mack tried to avoid topic
Mack, who took over at Louisville this season in the aftermath of the Pitino scandal, faced multiple questions about the Pitino storyline during his Wednesday media appearance.
He initially deflected, sticking to coach-speak about focusing on the opponent and having his players appreciate the moment of being in the NCAA tournament.
“I took over for a Hall of Fame coach,” Mack said. “I get that. He's a terrific coach. I asked him his advice on Louisville when I took over the program, and he was nothing but gracious to me. But this is about the players and the coaches' experience in the tournament and that's it. It's no more than that.”
Not happy with selection committee
But he was finally compelled to address the elephant in the room and isn’t pleased with the job the selection committee did.
“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 and focusing on the student-athletes and the coaches' experience and the fan base's experience,” Mack said. “But, you know, I can't control that.”
The good thing about the abrupt nature of the NCAA Tournament is that this will be a short-lived issue for both Pitino and Mack. Win or lose Thursday, there will be a completely different storyline to focus on Friday.
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