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Gophers get No. 5 NCAA seed, face Middle Tennessee State

Minnesota Gophers head coach Richard Pitino cheers on his team in the second half against the Michigan Wolverines at Williams Arena last Sunday. Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers' season-long turnaround and surprising 24-9 campaign culminated Sunday with an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, their first invitation to the big dance since 2013.

Players leaped out of their seats at the team's watch party U.S. Bank Stadium as it was announced the Gophers received a No. 5 seed in the tournament.

They'll play 12-seed Middle Tennessee in Milwaukee Thursday at 3 p.m. The winner of that game will play the winner of 4-seed Butler and 13-seed Winthrop on Saturday.

"I'm excited for these guys to feel that validation and go to the NCAA tournament," coach Richard Pitino said. "This is what you dream of as a coach — to be sitting here."

A year ago, the Gophers finished 2-16 in the Big Ten with the program's highest loss total in more than a century.

But Sunday, the Big Ten's coach of the year sat behind his team as their celebratory reaction was broadcast live on national television.

Players circled and jumped in each other's arms, initially blocking Pitino's view of the television which displayed their first round opponent.

"I couldn't see who it was," Pitino said with a laugh.

When he saw they were matched up with Middle Tennessee (30-4), Pitino said his first thoughts were of respect toward their head coach Kermit Davis, whom Pitino got to know from his season at Florida International, which plays in the Conference USA with Middle Tennessee.

"Every time I see him we chat it up for a long time because I've got a lot of respect for him," Pitino said. "I always say my best win as a coach was beating him in the conference semifinals. So hopefully he doesn't try to pay me back."

The Blue Raiders earned an automatic bid to the tournament by winning the conference championship for a second straight year.

A year ago, they became the darlings of the first round of the NCAA tournament when they upset No. 2 Michigan State as a 15-seed.

"Our players need to understand that they need to be prepared and they need to be focused," Pitino said. "All the media obligations and fanfare all gets thrown away when the ball gets thrown up."

This is the 14th time in program history the Gophers have reached the NCAA tournament.

They won one tournament game in 2013, which was their first NCAA tournament win since their since-vacated Final Four run in 1997.

Pitino said he wasn't as worried about the team's seeding entering Sunday as he was where they'd play.

He said he had hoped to land in Milwaukee, so Gophers fans can travel there.

"That part of it is great," Pitino said. "But other than that, you can throw all the seeds away because they really don't matter."

The Gophers are in the South region of the 68-team tournament.

The No. 1 seed in their region of the bracket is North Carolina and the No. 2 seed is Kentucky.

The Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds will be held in Memphis, Tenn.

"I just smile, I can't do nothing else," junior guard Nate Mason said. "I'm still in shock that we're actually going to the NCAA tournament. With what we went through, this is crazy."

Seven Big Ten schools received initiations to the NCAA tournament, but only one received a better seed than the Gophers. Purdue is the 4-seed in the Midwest region and will play 13-seed Vermont.

"That's something I've wanted to be a part of my whole life," said freshman Amir Coffey, of Hopkins, Minn., of watching the selection show. "I watched that show growing up as a kid so to be a part of it now is crazy."

Both Minnesota and Middle Tennessee played Vanderbilt early in the season, their lone common opponent. The Gophers won at a neutral site by four points and Middle Tennessee won by 23 at home.

The Blue Raiders are led by 6-foot-8 senior JaCorey Williams (17.3 points per game) and 6-foot-2 junior Giddy Potts (15.8 points per game)

On Sunday, though, most Gophers players admitted they didn't know anything yet of Middle Tennessee, happy to celebrate a berth in the NCAA tournament a year after embarrassment.

"To hear our name get called at all was a great feeling," guard Dupree McBrayer said. "We actually thought we'd get a 6 or a 7 seed, but we got a 5."

Pitino's dancing

Richard Pitino and father Rick, the head coach at Louisville, will become the first father-son combo to lead two different schools in the NCAA tournament.

But while Richard admitted it's cool to be a part of history, he said he was happy the tournament committee didn't put Louisville and Minnesota in the same region.

Louisville received a No. 2 seed in the Midwest region.

"I didn't want to do that and I didn't think we'd go on that side because that wouldn't have been right," Pitino said. "I know there are so many variables that go into it. It is cool that we're the first ever father son duo that gets to coach in it together. So that's great. But I would have hated for the storyline to be about us. I'm happy for them they got a 2-seed that's terrific."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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