Q. Christen, is this what you envision the when you decided to come to Louisville? The projections were 11th in the ACC and all that. Did you think the NCAA Tournament was attainable?
CHRISTEN CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, my number one goal when I came to the University of Louisville was to be able to compete for a national title and I thought we could make the tournament from day one. So it feels good to finally achieve it and be here.
Q. This may sound like a simple question, but how did you guys get here? Not many expected you here in March. What is it about this group that has allowed you guys to make it here?
JORDAN NWORA: You know, getting here I think it’s just us working hard and being tough, so really just working hard, being tough, listening to what Coach Mack and the coaching staff has preached to us all year and because of that sticking together and because of that we won a few games and did well in the ACC which got us here.
CHRISTEN CUNNINGHAM: I would say similar. We were a resilient group. We had a really tough schedule. We knew that coming into the year, but we took the motto of being stronger together and unbreakable and we used being 11th as a chip on our shoulder for motivation and knew what we wanted to achieve.
Q. Coach Mack is known for using negative motivation to fuel you guys. Has the whole Minnesota-Pitino angle been played out in practice or privately among you players and with the coaching staff as a source of motivation?
JORDAN NWORA: No, we haven’t really talked about that at all, actually. We’re just worried about playing Minnesota. Coach Pitino was here and now it’s Coach Mack and we know that Minnesota has Coach Pitino’s son, but we haven’t talked about that. Minnesota is our focus going into tomorrow and doing our best that we can to win the game.
CHRISTEN CUNNINGHAM: For sure. It’s kind of a sexy story line for the media, but as far as our program is concerned, we are worried about beating Minnesota and advancing. It’s not about any name that’s associated with the school. It’s just about players going out there and making plays.
Q. What is the biggest thing that stands out about Minnesota to you guys? What do they do really well? They’re a team that’s won a few straight. What stands out to you?
JORDAN NWORA: Probably their big guards. Coffey is a really good player, and obviously Jordan is a great player, too, double-double machine. They can beat you up in the post. We’re going to have to be physical with them, too, and just do our best against that.
CHRISTEN CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, they’re a really physical team. Bigger guards and some really physical guys in the post. So we understand what they bring to the table. We just gotta match their intensity in the paint.
Q. I know you’re not supposed to look ahead, but you’ve already beat Michigan State. When you saw this bracket did you think this is a really good route for us? Really good draw? Either one?
JORDAN NWORA: I mean, everything is going to be tough, no matter where you are in the bracket. Every team at this point in the year is going to be good. They’re here for a reason. Right now we’re not even looking ahead to Michigan State. Michigan State has to play Bradley first, so we’re not even worried about that. Worried about playing Minnesota. They’re not going to be somebody we’re going to go in and trounce by 20. We’ve to play hard and do our best to beat those guys first, and then we will worry about the game after that. It’s going to be tough regardless of who we play, but right now we’re just worried about getting past Minnesota.
CHRISTEN CUNNINGHAM: I don’t think we have looked ahead to Michigan State at all. Obviously, we played them earlier in the year. But I would probably say I know we’re a much different team that played them and I’m positive they’re probably a much different team as well. But like Jordan said, we are focused on Minnesota. Gotta take it one game at a time.
Q. Christen, what did you anticipate your role to be when you transferred to Louisville? What were you looking to provide on the court?
CHRISTEN CUNNINGHAM: I knew right away I was going to be a guy who would come in and provide leadership for this team. They had a lot of talented players but not a lot of experience. So that was one thing I wanted to come in and do is try to be a leader on and off court. As far as on the court just be a playmaker. I got a ton of great players around me, really talented. I knew it would be my job to put them into position where they could be successful.
Q. Jordan, you are the most improved player in the ACC. What do you attribute that to?
JORDAN NWORA: Just a lot of hard work in the off season, Coach Mack and my teammates pushing me and being in the weight room over the summer and also this summer playing overseas, boosting my confidence, being able to do well over there translated to being able to do well, here, too. From there, just a confidence thing, keeping that and staying in rhythm.
Q. There are so many teams in the NCAA Tournament, but you guys get the first game of the day. Does that up the ante knowing that all eyes are going to be on you guys to kick this off?
JORDAN NWORA: I think it ups the ante, kicking this thing off. But like I said earlier, we’re already hyped enough for this first game. A lot of guys, it’s their first time being in the tournament, and we just wanting to out and show everybody what basketball is all about.
CHRISTEN CUNNINGHAM: It’s definitely cool to be the first game of the tournament and everybody is going to be watching. But also the flip side is if we don’t bring it we could be the first team out of the tournament. So we are going to use it both ways. But, yeah, it’s something we are looking forward to.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, gentlemen.
We are joined by Louisville head Coach, Chris Mack. Coach, welcome.
CHRIS MACK: Thank you. Glad to be here, and obviously a big challenge here tomorrow against a very physical opponent in Minnesota, and, you know, it’s odd to be the first game of the tournament. But that’s how the draw works. So we’re excited to be in Des Moines and start off the tournament.
Q. Chris, this is the first game of the tournament. There are a lot of people that think this match-up was designed for ratings or story lines or that. As you process all that, A, what do you believe along those lines; and, B, have you used some of the perceptions about it as motivational fuel for your players?
CHRIS MACK: I haven’t even talked about it with our players. I just feel like it’s such a special experience to make the NCAA Tournament for a few of our guys for the very first time and only time in their career. So to focus on anything other than trying to be at our best against a really good Minnesota team I think would be robbing them of the experience of being here.
You know, I don’t mind, and I understand why media are going to ask about it. But here is the thing: I took over for a Hall of Fame coach. I get that. He’s a terrific coach. I asked him his advice on Louisville when I took over the program, and he was nothing but gracious to me. But this is about the players and the coaches’ experience in the tournament and that’s it. It’s no more than that. I think the Committee could have probably had a little bit more self-awareness so we don’t have to be up here answering these type of questions and focusing on the student-athletes and the coaches’ experience and the fan base’s experience, but, you know, I can’t control that.
Q. Coach, a lot of people haven’t seen you play very much this year. They’re going to see you play tomorrow. For people who aren’t familiar with your team, how would you describe this particular group, what they’ve done to get here?
CHRIS MACK: That’s a great question. I feel like we’re a resilient group. We’ve been through a lot. I think we’re a very together group. Sometimes that may not come out on the floor in terms of making the right play or being at our best, but the intention has always been clear with our group. We are a very, very together group, a close-knit group. It’s no secret that when I took over there wasn’t the greatest light around the program. I told our players in the very beginning when I met with them that they weren’t the cause for it, but they could certainly be the cure for it. I think anybody that’s watched us play this year, I’ve asked our players to be this way. I want fans or people that watch our team to say, wow, those guys play hard. They play together. They play the right way. We haven’t been perfect, but I’m really proud of our group because they’ve done that all year long and that’s all you can ask for as a coach.
Q. You’ve acclimated yourself to the Gophers. How much has Jordan Murphy stood out and to be 6’5″ or 6’6″ to be able to produce?
CHRIS MACK: He’s that short? I haven’t been next to him, so I don’t know that. But he looks like he’s 6’11” on film. He’s very, very strong. I think like all great players he knows who he is. He has an identity in terms of how he plays and he doesn’t try to get outside that identity. You know, you hear him in his interviews. You can tell he’s really smart. He would be a great leader. I mean, to be where he’s at in the history of the Big Ten rebounding the ball says a lot about the type of player and the will that he has. We’re going to have to do it collectively. Some teams in the Big Ten have put their 5 on him. I’ve seen him seek and destroy 4’s and 5’s, so we have to be able to do it as a team. He jumps out on film. Like a lot of teams that make this tournament, he’s not their own threat, not even close. He’s just a part of their machine.
Q. Not to look ahead, but the first Michigan State game was kind of a breakthrough for your program. I think people perceive that you were further ahead maybe than they expected. In your own mind, did you see this potential that early? What told you that this had the makings of a tournament team?
CHRIS MACK: Yeah, this will have nothing to do with who is on the other side of our pairing or bracket because we’re not naive enough to think that we’re going to get past Minnesota. We’re focused on trying to play the Gophers. I really had this belief in the summer when I worked with our players I saw their work ethic up close, their skill level. I saw the strides they were making, and I think they all, and I’m talking about our players, they all became a little bit more believers in themselves when we went to New York and played in the Barkley’s, and even though they didn’t win two games I remember Mike DeCourcy saying if Louisville doesn’t play bad and doesn’t get decimated by Tennessee or Marquette, which was a valid point from an outsider’s perspective early in the season.
But we played Tennessee tooth and nail and the last five minutes couldn’t score against their zone, and then we had Marquette. We had control virtually up to the last two games and I don’t feel like anybody in our locker room felt like we played perfect in either of those. So when we left we felt like we could have done the job, should have done the job. Now we have to figure out what we need to do to win those type of games.
Q. Chris, you have so few players who have done any of this at the NCAA level. They haven’t been through any of the trappings of the tournament. What kind of a challenge is there beyond that?
CHRIS MACK: It’s basketball, and we try to be the same people whether we’re in the practice facility at Drake today, at the Yum! Center or Chapel Hill, doesn’t matter, you could point to all kinds of teams. UMBC last year I don’t think they had ever been to a NCAA Tournament. It’s not a rock in a sling shot. It’s basketball. We have to be prepared like we are every game, and then we have to try to go execute that game plan to the best of our ability against a really good team.
Q. When your team has been good, it’s done some pretty special things against some really good teams, maybe not for forty minutes. When you look at that, is that kinda the upside for this team? Are they that much above their heads or is it a matter of them getting to that more consistently?
CHRIS MACK: I tell our team all the time that we don’t have to be perfect. Nobody that we play is going to be perfect. It’s not going to require a perfect effort to win or a perfect game plan. It’s just our effort and our energy and our resiliency. Those things have to be perfect. Those things have to be perfect. You might miss a shot, might miss a free throw, turn the ball over. But our effort and our energy needs to be better than our opponent’s, and it needs to be consistent each and every night. That’s hard. That’s hard to do for a long stretch of games from October all the way through now. That’s very difficult. A lot of teams can’t do it. I think our team has done a great job of that. We’re not always, again, perfect, but I think we’ve done our part.
Q. A lot of the teams that are seeded 1 or 2 are familiar to you, ridiculously so —
CHRIS MACK: I would like to thank Kenny Klein for that scheduling.
Q. What is the value at this point in the season for having gone through that gauntlet?
CHRIS MACK: I know our players feel as though there won’t be a team that we’ll face where we will wonder whether we can compete with them or not. I think there are a lot of teams that come into this tournament that say, hey, we want to win some games. But, man, if we’re matched up against a few teams can we really play with those guys and give ourselves a chance to win? I know our group feels like we can because we have been. We’ve been forced to because of our schedule. We have come out on the short end of the stick, and there is a reason why they are the best teams in the country. One of the teams we played, I believe, will be holding a National Championship trophy if it’s not us. That’s the type of schedule we have played. I think it should give our guys great confidence if we stay within ourselves and play with great energy and do what we work on every single day, that would be good enough to keep us there down the stretch to win a game.
Q. If it’s not you, who?
CHRIS MACK: I don’t know. It could be different teams on different nights.