Booster members, team personnel, officials from the University of Minnesota, media, and of course the team gathered in the Buffalo Wild Wings club room at US Bank Stadium to celebrate Minnesota’s selection to the NCAA Tournament.
Lots of chicken wings eaten? Actually no. There were none. But there was a lot of maroon and gold excitement starting with the door greeting worker to alum Quincy Lewis, and from athletic director Mark Coyle to band members and the smiling face of Akeem Springs.
Sitting next to Jarvis Johnson on his right and numerous media members with cameras in hands Springs had a smile that represented Minnesota’s 12 month journey. Despite his injury Akeem’s spirit is still high and it’s rubbed off on everybody on the team.
A year ago Minnesota was finishing up an eight win season and focusing on the future within the locker room. There was little to no support outside of their facilities which has made this journey even sweeter.
“Our kids were in a transition year,” Richard Pitino said. “There was a lot of negativity around this program. There was so much outside noise and very little belief in what we were doing and I just thought internally we believed.
“We felt we turned the corner as we were excited about the new guys (Eric Curry, Amir Coffey, and Michael Hurt), the transfers (Reggie Lynch, Davonte Fitzgerald who like Springs is injured), and the returning players (Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, and Bakary Konate). I’m excited that those guys and their families believed in us and what we were doing.
“We’re not a boastful program, we’re not going to talk about it very much. We believed that we would let our play do the talking. We sat there and we took it like we needed to do and there was a lot of doubt that was thrown around and that comes with the territory.
“I thought internally that our guys truly believed. I don’t think our guys would have stuck it out if they didn’t truly believe that they were going to have success.”
After watching Wisconsin get an eight seed confusion started to set in. “What seed would they get” and “Would they be lower than an eight?” were some of the questions starting to be asked.
Moments later it was announced that Minnesota was a five seed and would play Middle Tennessee in Milwaukee this Thursday.
“I’m excited for these guys that they can be sitting in a room and they can feel that validation that you’ve made the NCAA Tournament after what we went through last year,” Pitino explained.
“The families here, you know families go through a lot. It’s exciting. This is what you dream of as a coach. I’ve been lucky to sit in that room a lot in my life, but now that I’m a head coach its something I am extremely proud of.”
With a 24-9 record Minnesota earned a five seed. How? They had an 8-7 record against the RPI top 50, they won five games against RPI top 50 teams away from Williams Arena, their strength of schedule was high, and the selection committee had the Gophers 18th on their board.
“When you look at our conference Purdue is the number one team and we played at Purdue,” Pitino said. “Then Wisconsin, we played them twice. Maryland was third, we played them twice.
“Then you look at Northwestern on the road and Michigan State twice. We played a very tough schedule and maybe we were rewarded for that. I also thought that we played a very challenging non-conference schedule as well.”
Florida State, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and Mount St. Mary’s all made the NCAA Tournament and the Gophers played each of them in non-conference play.
After the selection Pitino had one thing on his mind, the Blue Raiders. The seed was not his concern, Middle Tennessee was.
“I don’t worry about the number, that’s kind of irrelevant to me. Kermit Davis is just a phenomenal coach. Every time I see him we chat it up for a long time.”
Pitino then began to reflect on the journey that’s led him from Providence to Louisville, to Florida, back to Louisville, then to Florida International, and finally here in Minnesota four the last four years.
“This is something I have been dreaming of,” Pitino said. “I have always said this place, we have what money can’t buy. We have great fan support, a great place to live, a great student athlete experience.
“Now that the money is being put in the sky's the limit. I’m proud of our team. I am proud of our staff that we’ve put together. It’s been a lot of hard work.”
The location of Milwaukee was also crucial to Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament selection. A six hour travel by car is very easy for Golden Gopher fans.
“I don’t necessarily worry about seeding, but sometimes location does matter,” Pitino said. “I wanted it to be Milwaukee so our fans could all get there, so all of that is great. If your fans can get to it, it’s great.
“It’s exciting that our fans our going to be able to drive there and we’ll need it because Middle Tennessee can beat anybody. It’s extremely important in the first two rounds if you can ever get a type of home court advantage and we’ll need that.”
The Blue Raiders are 30-4 this year and ranked 25th in the country. They pulled off the upset of the first round a year ago and already the national analysts have pegged Minnesota as their next victim.
“I know Middle Tennessee played in it last year when they beat Michigan State, but I don’t know how many guys are back from that team,” Pitino said.
“We just need to understand that they need to be prepared and we need to be focused. There will be media obligations and distractions but when the ball is thrown up in the air all of that goes away.”
Coach Davis has been the Blue Raiders leader for 15 years and he’s a familiar opponent for Coach Pitino.
“I was in a league with Kermit Davis of Middle Tennessee State and he is a terrific coach,” Pitino stated. “He got an at-large bid in my first year out of the Sun Belt. He’s a phenomenal coach and he’s got great talent so certainly it will be a tough match-up.”
Minnesota is a tough match-up as well having won 8 of 15 games played against NCAA Tournament teams (15 of Minnesota’s 33 games this year were against teams that went Dancing).
Having won 9 of 11 contests the Gophers are still one of the nation’s hottest teams. They are also still quite confident despite a tough second half at Wisconsin and a rough start against Michigan in the semi-finals.
“It’s the returners we have, the Nate Masons, theDupree McBrayers, and the Jordan Murphys of the world,” Pitino said. “Akeem Springs obviously provided great leadership for us and great belief, great confidence. It’s tough to go on a five game losing streak and answer it with an eight game winning streak. That’s not done a lot. You have to be confident and you have got to believe that what you’re doing is right and that you will break through and fortunately we did that.”
Now Pitino has to prepare his team without Akeem Springs. Against Michigan Pitino simply played his starting guards and wings all the time but the players were gassed. Pitino plans on going to his bench more for the Middle Tennessee game.
“We don’t have a lot of depth at the guard spot,” Pitino said. “We have to get some other guys ready. Stephon Sharp, Ahmad Gilbert, Michael Hurt.
“We’ll have to prepare these next few days obviously for Middle Tennessee but also prepare for the way we’re going to play. Akeem was a starter and he was playing around 27 minutes so it's hard to adjust on the fly, but I am proud of our guys for how hard they fought.
“We would like to move Amir to the two a little bit more and we’re going to play Michael and (Gilbert) a little more and we will go from there.”