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Louisville presents big challenge for Gophers in NCAA tournament opener

Louisville Cardinals guard Ryan McMahon (30) and guard Christen Cunningham (1) react with forward Jordan Nwora (33) during the second half against the Pittsburgh Panthers during a game earlier this season. Jamie Rhodes / USA TODAY Sports

Low expectations accompanied the Louisville men’s basketball team into this season.

The Atlantic Coast Conference’s media picked the Cardinals to finish 11th in the 15-team league. Preview magazines Athlon and Lindy’s were in lock-step with the exact same prediction.

The NIT, not the NCAA tournament, was the forecast, so how did Louisville earn a No. 7 seed and first-round game against the No. 10-seed Gophers on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa?

For one, first-year coach Chris Mack arrived in Louisville after building an impressive résumé at Xavier. He replaced David Padgett, who was the interim coach after Rick Pitino was fired just before the 2017-18 season.

At Xavier, Mack led the Big East program to a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament (before a second-round exit) and had advanced to three Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight in his nine seasons at the Cincinnati school.

Lousville’s best win this season came against North Carolina, the ACC co-champions, 83-62 in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Jan. 12. It was one of only two conference losses for the Tar Heels, who are a No. 2 seed in March Madness.

“They’ve had a really good year,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said of Louisville. “They’ve had some moments.”

Louisville also beat Michigan State 82-78 at in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Nov. 27. The Spartans, who throttled the Gophers 79-55 on Feb. 9, went on to win a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and then won the conference tournament, too. Michigan State is the No. 2 seed in the East Region and likely awaits the winner of Gophers-Louisville game in Saturday’s second round.

The Cardinals also led Duke, the top seed in the NCAA tournament, 59-36 with 10 minutes left before collapsing in a 71-69 loss on Feb 12.

Louisville was rolling at the start of conference play with a 7-1 record but finished the regular season with a 3-7 record and then went 1-1 in the ACC tournament.

Like the Gophers, Louisville also has bad losses, including to Boston College, Pittsburgh and Indiana.

The Cardinals are 20-13 overall, 10-8 in ACC, which is similar to the Gophers’ 21-13 and 9-11 in the Big Ten. The ACC’s seven NCAA tournament teams are second to the Big Ten’s eight.

The Cardinals are led by 6-foot-8 forward Jordan Nwora, who averages team bests of 17.2 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. He’s shooting 37 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

“Jordan Nwora is one of the most improved players I’ve ever seen,” Pitino said. “He’s terrific.”

Fellow forward Dwayne Sutton is second on the team at 10.2 points and 6.9 rebounds a game. He shoots 36 percent from deep.

Louisville opened as a 4K-point favorite on Sunday. The spread moved to 5K points by Tuesday.

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