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USA TODAY Sports
DES MOINES, Iowa – There was a trace of annoyance in Chris Mack’s tone and some subtle reproach in his words.
The University of Louisville men’s basketball coach has not been consumed by the Rick Pitino narrative attached to his team’s NCAA tournament opener like a basketball barnacle — has not even mentioned it, he says, to his players — but he remains puzzled and slightly put out by the first-round matchup that pits his Cardinals against the Minnesota Gophers of Pitino’s son, Richard.
“I think the (Selection) Committee could have probably had a little more self-awareness,” Mack said Wednesday afternoon, “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, but, you know, I can’t control that.”
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Perhaps the chips fell precisely as the NCAA tournament Bracket portrays. Perhaps the Louisville-Minnesota game was the product of seeding and geography and not someone’s idea of conflict-driven programming. Perhaps it’s totally random that the tournament opens with a game between Pitino’s son and the school his father A) led to a (since vacated) 2013 title, B) was fired by following a series of scandals, and C) is now suing for roughly $40 million.
Perhaps we’re all too suspicious, too quick to assign sinister motive to an obvious (and arguably oblivious) oversight. Yet when asked if a committee member would speak to the provocative pairing and whether anyone in the room had asked “Do we really want to do this?”, NCAA spokeswoman Emily James responded: “We will decline to comment on this one.”
Ultimately, Rick Pitino will have no bearing on the outcome of Louisville-Minnesota. He will be traveling to Milan Thursday to coach his Greek team in a EuroLeague game, and any shadow he casts will be felt more by fans and media types than by the participating players. Still, as Mack intimated, anyone paying attention should have known enough to avoid reopening old wounds and causing collateral damage to innocent parties.
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“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?’” Richard Pitino said Wednesday. “You have to be prepared for those questions.”
For his part, the elder Pitino has maintained an uncharacteristically low profile since the bracket was revealed Sunday night. He declined to address the Minnesota-Louisville game for the record when contacted by the Courier Journal, and he has refrained from mentioning either school on his Twitter feed (while picking Virginia to beat Duke for the NCAA title).
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Could be a coincidence. Or it could be that Rick Pitino knows when it’s time to make himself heard and when it’s time to make himself scarce.
“We spoke,” Richard Pitino said of his father’s recent reticence. “Normally he wouldn’t listen if I told him to be quiet. … We didn’t talk much about anything other than he asked about (former Louisville center) Matz (Stockman), how he’s doing, asked about the team. At the end of the day my focus is totally on helping our team be put in a position to succeed, not a whole lot else more than that.”
Though he has acknowledged Rick Pitino as “the elephant in the room,” Mack is mindful of insulating his players from outside noise. “To focus on anything other than trying to be at our best against a really good Minnesota team I think would be robbing them of the experience of being here.”
Moreover, to attach any significance to the Pitino subplot could minimize the tangible trials Louisville has already faced. The Cardinals have already played nine games against the tournament’s eight highest-seeded teams — they are 2-7 in those games — and could play another one Saturday should they advance to meet second-seeded Michigan State.
“I know our players feel as though there won’t be a team that we’ll face where we will wonder whether we can compete with them or not,” Mack said. “I think there are a lot of teams that come into this tournament that, say, ‘Hey, we want to win some games. But, man, if we’re matched up against a few teams can we really play with those guys and give ourselves a chance to win?’
“I know our group feels like we can because we have been. We’ve been forced to because of our schedule. We have come out on the short end of the stick and there is a reason why: They are the best teams in the country. One of the teams we played, I believe, will be holding a national championship trophy if it’s not us.”
Mack’s eyes are on that prize. He would prefer that this path not start with a Pitino.