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Gophers make NCAA Tournament, will play Louisville in 1st Round

Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Amir Coffey (5) attempts to control the ball between Michigan Wolverines guard Zavier Simpson (3) and Wolverines guard Jordan Poole (2) during the first half in the Big Ten conference tournament Saturday, March 16, 2019, at United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers men’s basketball team ate Buffalo Wild Wings from tables with maroon and gold balloon centerpieces on the top floor of the Athletes Village on Sunday evening, March 17. Content with full stomachs and knowledge that their season’s body of work would be enough, players moved over to a semicircle of seats to watch a large projector screen with confidence they would see “Minnesota” included in the NCAA tournament field.

The Gophers didn’t have to wait long to learn they received a No. 10 seed and will play No. 7 Louisville in a first-round game at 11:15 a.m. Thursday, March 21, at Wells Fargo Center in Des Moines, Iowa. Players and coach Richard Pitino burst into loud applause over making the Big Dance for a second time in three years.

The Gophers (21-13) face the Cardinals (20-13) in the opening game of the 64-team field played across Thursday and Friday. In the other matchup, No. 2 Michigan State, which won the Big Ten tournament Sunday, will face No. 15 Bradley. Players gave an “ohhhs” at a potential matchup against the conference regular-season and tournament champion.

“I was excited,” senior forward Jordan Murphy said. “I think all of us were excited to be in the tournament and make it as far as we have this season.”

Both ESPN and CBS had pegged Minnesota as a No. 8 or 9 seed, something Pitino didn’t think was a major sticking point. But location, location, location, could be a boon with a short driving distance of about 250 miles possibly inducing U fans to caravan down Interstate 35.

“The location does matter because it gives our fans an opportunity to come,” Pitino said. “So I know it’s about three hours away, so hopefully our fans can get there and I’m excited about it.”

Minnesota received an at-large bid with a resume bolstered by two quality wins over Penn State and Purdue and reached the Big Ten tournament semifinals at United Center in Chicago. They got waxed 76-49 by third seed Michigan on Saturday but traveled back comforted that their season would continue.

Pitino said the only thing he was wishing when the bracket was revealed was a game on Friday to help buy center Matz Stockman an additional day of recovery from the concussion he suffered against Purdue. Stockman missed the Wolverines game and skipped Sunday’s event to rest in his dorm room.

In 2017, Minnesota received a fifth seed but lost to No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee 81-72 in the first round in Milwaukee. It’s a loss they remember and want to learn from come Thursday.

“You need the older guys that have been there before to act like they’ve been there before a little bit,” Pitino said in reference to Murphy, Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and Michael Hurt. “Those guys know what the NCAA tournament is about. It’s win or go home, so you better be ready to compete.”