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Minnesota Basketball: Previewing Louisville

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After a long, winding road the Gophers finally have a foothold in March

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame vs Louisville Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been months of consternation, handwringing, blowouts, injuries, laughs, tears, getting blown out, and being on the bubble, but we’re finally here. March Madness. The Big Dance. And the Gophers are part of it. Was there ever really a doubt? (Narrator: there was).

The Gophers took the long route to the NCAA Tournament this time, adding three wins in the season’s final 10 days and going from true bubble team to locking in a bid and ending up as the #10 seed in the West Region. And now the fun starts, as Minnesota gets to face the Louisville Cardinals. This is where I’m supposed to talk about about how Rick Pitino used to coach Louisville and now his son, Richard, coaches the Gophers and used to be a Louisville assistant and “omigod they almost coached against each other!” but I’ll leave that to the national media and commentators.

To add a little more majesty to the matchup, the Gophers and Cardinals are set to square off in the first game of the tournament (First Four games don’t count). That means we’ll have an answer bright and early on Thursday as to whether Minnesota is ready for the big time.

Essentials:

Who are the Gophers playing?

Louisville Cardinals (20-13)

What time are they playing?

Thursday, March 21 @ 11:15 a.m. CT

Where are they playing?

Wells Fargo Arena (Des Moines, IA)

Can I watch the game on TV?

Yes, CBS

Can I listen to the game on the radio?

Yes, KFAN 100.3-FM

Tell me more about the opponent.

This isn’t your father’s Louisville Cardinals team. Are they good? Absolutely. But they’d missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three years before this and had a rough end to the regular season, losing seven of their final ten conference games. Sound familiar?

Still, the Cards are arguably the better team on paper. KenPom has them at #18 with the nation’s 16th best defense. Sophomore forward Jordan Nwora is averaging more than 17 ppg and 7.5 rpg while flashing the ability to hit some shots from deep. Meanwhile, senior PG Christen Cunningham is in the top 75 nationally in assists while Dwayne Sutton adds another big body down low, where he’s averaging more than 10 ppg and nearly 7 rpg.

The Cardinals can stretch the floor and their bigs can shoot, which should present a challenge for a Minnesota team that is looking mighty thin these days. Pulling down the defensive rebounds will be key, as will minimizing second chance points for the Cardinals.

This is a team that loves to shoot and their bigs aren’t traditional post guys. Will that benefit Murphy and Oturu? Who will be able to guard Amir Coffey? These are important questions.

Handicapping the Gophers

So where are we at now that the Big Ten Tournament is over and the Big Dance is upon us? Let’s reset:

  • Matz Stockman suffered a concussion last week and is “game-time decision” for Thursday, but it’s not looking like he’ll play. What does that mean? Well, it’s made a thin bench even thinner, and likely means that Jarvis Omersa will see some additional minutes. Hang on to your hats.
  • Richard Pitino is 0-2 in his career against Louisville. Minnesota is 3-2 all time against them with a vacated game in there somewhere.
  • Jordan Murphy finished second in Big Ten play in rebounding, pulling down 10.8 boards per game, and leads in overall rebounding with 11.7 rebounds per game on the season, fifth in the nation.
  • Amir Coffey has scored 20+ in five of this last six games, including two 30+ efforts. This comes after a disturbing lull.


Predictions

Historical credentials aside, the Gophers have drawn a beatable opponent in Louisville who they appear to match up well with. It will be a neutral court, likely with a strong fan contingent and a not-insignificant chance to pulling the upset. Minnesota will be clear underdogs, but the Vegas line is at -5 for Louisville and KenPom has this as a 5-point victory for the Cardinals. That’s close enough for me.

I’m taking Minnesota by one in a tight one.