DES MOINES — As the annual Sad Locker Room Month in America began again in earnest Thursday, the first sad locker room of the final 64 of the NCAA tournament turned out to be Louisville’s. There went a program still navigating the waves and ripples of what you might call FBI limbo.
If the truest fabric of March is its tears, its recurring finality as team after team completes months of collaboration and locker room after locker room goes hushed, Louisville provided a modest example.
It didn’t cry much. It finished 20-14 with a first-year coach, Chris Mack. It lost a diabolical first-round matchup by 86-76 to a Minnesota team that typically shoots poorly from downtown but on Thursday shot well from downtown. Louisville became the latest example of a team that crests in January — it destroyed North Carolina at North Carolina and reached 16-5 — then tapers off, a reality punctuated Feb. 12, when Duke trailed Louisville 59-36 but won, 71-69.
All along, Louisville played its season with a convenience: It got picked 11th in the ACC.
When coaches daydream, they often daydream of getting picked 11th.
“It’s hard to see at the moment, but to get a group that was picked 11th . . .” Mack said, before mentioning what his team did accomplish.
Yet even more March Madness than the team picked 11th that finishes sixth and reaches the tournament is the sentiment of the players who just spent a time of life together day after day and hear the horn sound to bring the end of it. Those players, in so many places, might have found a spokesman in Christen Cunningham, the likable 6-foot-2 Louisville guard from Georgetown, Ky., who spent one Cardinal year as a graduate transfer (from Samford).
“The part with the season being over, you know, this experience being cut short,” Cunningham said, “we could have gone further, but obviously this whole year was a good year, and [it’s] the fact that this team is, you know, no more. They’ll have another team next year, and they’ll be really good, but it won’t be this team. It won’t be this group of guys. That’s probably the hardest part because of the bond.”
“It’s not just the ending of this year,” sophomore big man Malik Williams said, “but I mean, it’s the ending of some guys’ college careers. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I mean, that’s the toughest thing for me. I really wanted to go out on top for my senior teammates.”
“Yeah, the seniors, it’s their last game in college basketball,” said redshirt junior forward Dwayne Sutton, from Louisville. That makes it the hardest part “for sure,” he said.
There’s meaning, even amid all the game’s traditional absurdity and subterfuge.
One of the favorite parts of the American sports calendar got its final 64 going on Thursday at 11:15 a.m. Central time, not so long after coffee. Seventh-seeded Louisville would play No. 10 seed Minnesota, in a game that doubled as sort of an emblem for the unrest that hit the sport in fall 2017. That’s when the FBI dudes took the dais and talked righteous “we-have-your-playbook” trash about their hard look into the contours of college basketball.
By Thursday, the coach Louisville quickly ousted back then, Rick Pitino, prepared to coach Athens pro club Panathinaikos in a EuroLeague game at Olimpia Milan. Panathinaikos (14-13) had just come off a tough 72-70 home win Wednesday night over Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz of Spain. The player the FBI claimed Louisville had offered to pay, Brian Bowen, had finished March 2 a season with Australia’s Sydney Kings, who took a harsh two-game playoff sweep from Melbourne United. The NBADraft.net 2019 mock draft had Bowen going 53rd and to the Knicks, as if he hasn’t had enough trouble.
Pitino has had five sons, and only one of them, third-born Richard, had chosen the profession of the father. It’s his sixth season at Minnesota. Thursday’s win was his first in the NCAA tournament. Rick Pitino, who won this tournament twice and reached five other Final Fours with three programs, isn’t part of it nowadays, even if he did tweet on Wednesday a Final Four prediction of Duke, Virginia, Michigan and Kentucky.
“And then I have UVA beating Duke in the final game,” @RealPitino typed.
While many saw fiendishness in the tournament selection committee setting this matchup, Richard Pitino saw nothing but geeky stuff. After the victory, the 36-year-old said: “I’m truthful with it. I’m not being diplomatic. . . . It’s very hard to get to the tournament, especially in our league. We had five new players. We had some ups and downs. The focus was on preparing. It didn’t matter who we played. I’m proud of our players. . . .
“Like I said, I was not being diplomatic. I got respect for Chris Mack, his staff. They do a really good job. That was the focus. How can I help my team beat a really good team?”
He’s even believable. Anyone who ruins everyday basketball viewing at home by keeping a notepad close by to make notes, as does Richard Pitino, probably doesn’t concern himself with extraneous narratives, no matter how fiendish. And so he will move on to another matchup some might find unusual, against Big Ten foe Michigan State in the second round Saturday.
It had been an odd game, and Louisville had become an unusual first SLR (sad locker room). It had reached the heights with its 83-62 win in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Jan. 12, and Sutton said, “We were ourselves back then.”
Told he was great on that day, with 17 points and 10 rebounds, Sutton said, “Yes, sir. I was.” He said, “Even the Duke game when we led by 23 and blew it, we showed we could play with any team in the country.”
They had reached Sad Locker Room Month, and they had run across a team that averaged five three-point shots per game yet made 11 on Thursday, with Minnesota’s Gabe Kalscheur making five, with Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy making two and noting how Louisville had been “huddled in the paint” strategically.
Now, in that mysterious way about teams that look great and then don’t quite, they were off so soon, their last locker room hushed but not morose, with little brackets as designs in some of the lockers, Cardinal logos in others and one certain deodorant product arrayed on the locker shelves, as if that company just might be a sponsor. “It was great,” Cunningham said, “because for the three days we were here, it was a lot of fun.”
In Sad Locker Room Month, it’s only three days sometimes.
● MICHIGAN STATE 76, BRADLEY 65: Cassius Winston scored 26 points as the second-seeded Spartans defeated the No. 15 seed Braves (20-15) in Des Moines.
It was a one-possession game until Matt McQuaid drilled a crucial three-pointer to put Michigan State (29-6) ahead 61-55 with 3:31 left. The Spartans iced the game at the line, where they hit their first 20 and finished 25 for 26.
● LSU 79, YALE 74: Skylar Mays hit four free throws in the final 15 seconds to help the embattled Tigers slip past the 14th-seeded Bulldogs (22-8) in the opening round of the East Region in Jacksonville, Fla.
Mays finished with 19 points for No. 3 seed LSU (27-6), which will play Maryland on Saturday.