Rick Pitino will have to cheer on son’s team — and root against former school — from afar

Richard Pitino will have plenty of family members in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday to watch his Gophers men’s basketball team in the first round of the NCAA tournament — his wife and kids, his brother and a cousin all will be in attendance — but one family member who won’t be present is his father, Rick.

The younger Pitino said Tuesday at a press conference that his dad remains in Greece coaching his team in Panathinaikos. That club has a game scheduled for Wednesday night. “He’s kind of busy,” Richard said. “He’s in Greece, it’s not like he’s in North Carolina. … He will not be there.”

It would have been extremely interesting if Rick had made it to watch his son coach against his former team. The NCAA Tournament’s Selection Committee created a juicy storyline with this matchup of seventh-seeded Louisville and 10th-seeded Minnesota. Louisville won an NCAA title under Rick Pitino in 2013, but that championship was vacated when the NCAA handed down penalties for sex parties in Louisville’s basketball dormitory.

Rick Pitino was then fired in 2017 as the result of an FBI investigation of an alleged recruiting bribery scheme. He is now suing the school for breach of contract. Richard Pitino, in his sixth season at Minnesota, also was twice an assistant at Louisville for his father (2007-09 and 2011-12) but has done his best to downplay the fact his current team is playing his father’s former club.

“I don’t really care who we’re playing,” Richard Pitino said. “I’m looking at the players on the team, and I’m looking at the opportunity that we have to play in the NCAA tournament. (Louisville’s) Chris Mack is a very good coach, they’ve got really good players. Let’s go try to beat them. It’s going to be difficult. That’s the focus.

“All that other stuff, it’s a narrative that the media is going to talk about and the fans. I’m not offended by it but my biggest thing to (the players) is, ‘You’ve fought, you went and beat Purdue twice in like over a week.’ A lot of people think Purdue is one of the best teams in the country. Penn State was really, really hot and you beat them (in the Big Ten tournament). So, be proud of being in the NCAA tournament, I’m fine with answering question about (Louisville). I’m a big boy, I can handle it and I understand it. But we’re excited about playing a really good opponent. That’s the biggest thing.”

Pitino acknowledged he will see some familiar faces from Louisville.

“There’s people that still work there who are good people,” he said. “I’m excited to see them and will say hello. But, for me, it’s not a vacation. We’re going to work. So when I walk out of that tunnel it’s to go try to win a game. Chris Mack is the same way. We’re not thinking about all these other different back stories. We’re thinking about, ‘How do we get the tip and what play are we going to run?’ That’s kind of the way coaches think.”