Gophers eager to prove themselves in NCAA South Region

Last year, Minnesota had an 8-23 season that had plenty of people questioning the program’s direction under Richard Pitino. Now the Gophers (24-9) are back in the tournament for the first time since 2013 as the region’s No. 5 seed.

“We believed that we’d let our play do the talking, and we sat there and we took it like you need to do,” Pitino said. “All the doubt that was swirling around, it comes with the territory. But I thought internally, our guys truly believed.”

They’ll face 12-seed Middle Tennessee (30-4), which pulled last year’s opening-round upset of second-seeded Michigan State.

“Every year you see a 12-5 upset,” senior forward Reggie Upshaw said, “and to have that 12 seed, we know the history behind it.”

HISTORIC FAMILY REUNION: Minnesota’s first bid in four seasons under Richard Pitino makes this the first time a father and a son have each taken a team as a head coach to the same NCAA Tournament.

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When Louisville appeared on the screen as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, there were a few gasps in the party room where the Gophers watched the selection show with family, boosters and school officials.

The No. 7 seed and a second-round matchup with Rick Pitino and his Cardinals squad would have been a natural spot on the bracket for the Gophers.

The selection committee resisted any temptation, though, and that was just fine with Richard Pitino.

“That wouldn’t have been right,” he said, adding: “I would’ve hated for that story line to have been about us.”

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Here are things to know about the South Region:

TAR HEELS EARN RECORD 16TH 1-SEED: North Carolina’s run to the regular-season crown in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference was enough to secure the Tar Heels yet another No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

And they’re hardly the only blueblood program in a top-heavy South Region.

UNC earned a top seed for a national-best 16th time despite falling to rival Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals. It marked the second straight No. 1 seed for the Tar Heels (27-7), who lost to Villanova in last year’s championship game on a last-second 3-pointer.

“I’m very pleased with what our team accomplished,” coach Roy Williams said Sunday night, “because they don’t give those (top seeds) away, you have to earn them.”

North Carolina opens Friday against No. 16 seed Texas Southern in Greenville, South Carolina, in a bracket that features Kentucky and UCLA.

Those three programs have won 24 national championships and hold records for most titles (UCLA, 11), Final Fours (UNC, 19) and tournament wins (Kentucky, 121).

The Tar Heels finished two games up in the ACC, which broke its record with nine NCAA bids, before losing 93-83 to the Blue Devils. But that could be a good omen: UNC’s 2005 and 2009 title runs under Williams started after a loss in the ACC Tournament semifinals.

Second-seeded Kentucky (29-5) won the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament titles. The Wildcats — who open with Northern Kentucky — have a potential Sweet 16 matchup with third-seeded UCLA (29-4), which beat the Wildcats in December to end their 42-game winning streak at Rupp Arena.

If Kentucky meets UNC in the regional final, it would be a rematch of a wild December game won by the Wildcats, 103-100, behind 47 points from star freshman Malik Monk.

“One team should’ve beat us when we had a guy go for 67 (points),” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Monk, “and then (UCLA) beat us and beat us good. The score wasn’t indicative of how bad they beat us. Hopefully we’re a better team for both of those games.”

 

OFFENSE ABOUNDS: There’s the potential for some big totals with five teams from the top 20 nationally in scoring — and it starts with UCLA’s crowd-pleasing flow. With freshman Lonzo Ball leading the way, UCLA leads the country in scoring offense (90.4) and is third in KenPom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings (122.7 points per 100 possessions) entering its opener against 14th-seeded Kent State.

UPSET THREATS: Watch out for fourth-seeded Butler (23-8) and No. 9 seed Seton Hall (21-11) in the upper half of the bracket.

The Bulldogs, who face 13-seed Winthrop, handed No. 1 overall tournament seed Villanova two of its three losses. And the Pirates, who face 8-seed Arkansas, upended Villanova last year in the Big East Tournament to spark the Wildcats’ title run.

SHOCKERS LURKING: Three years ago, Wichita State earned a 1-seed and with an unbeaten record only to get tripped up by an underseeded Kentucky team in the second round. Could roles be reversed this time?

The Shockers (30-4) earned a 10-seed to face No. 7 seed Dayton for the chance to earn a potential second-round shot at Kentucky. They enter the tournament as KenPom.com’s eighth-ranked team in, not the region, but the entire field of 68.

MANNING’S RIVALS: Danny Manning earned a permanent place in March Madness lore when he led a sixth-seeded Kansas team to a surprising run to the national title in 1988 — which included a win against instate rival Kansas State in the Elite Eight. He’ll see the Wildcats again as Wake Forest’s head coach in a First Four matchup Tuesday, with the winner facing No. 6 seed Cincinnati.