Ahead of the women's basketball season, Minnesota head coach Lindsay Whalen knew it was important for the Gophers to be tested against their non-conference opponents.
In her first season as the head coach for Minnesota last year, Whalen led the Gophers to 11 consecutive wins against nonconference opponents before the start of Big Ten conference play. While impressive, Whalen felt like her team was not as challenged as they needed to be. Of the 11 nonconference games to start last season, only two took place away from the comfort of Williams Arena. More importantly, only one of their nonconference opponents, Syracuse, finished with a winning record and played in last season's NCAA Tournament. Seven of the nonconference opponents failed to win 10 games last season.
"That's why we wanted to schedule harder in the nonconference this year," Whalen said before the season. "We wanted to schedule harder so we knew right away what we had and what we need to work on, and so it's going to be fun."
The nonconference opponents on Minnesota's schedule this season look to be more challenging on paper. Six of the 11 nonconference opponents had a winning record last season and four played in the NCAA Tournament. Senior guard Jasmine Brunson and the rest of the Gophers now plan to make the most of this nonconference schedule to prepare for Big Ten opponents and a possible appearance in this season's NCAA Tournament.
"The nonconference schedule last year is something that hurt us in my opinion," Brunson said earlier this season. "We have a tougher schedule this year with the nonconference. ... You always want to try to test yourself and see where you guys are at when you play a good team, because they're going to make you pay."
Two notable opponents Minnesota have played thus far are Missouri State and Arizona State, as both teams made it to the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Tournament a season ago. The Gophers saw mixed results in these two games, starting off slowly by losing 77-69 to Missouri State but beating Arizona State 80-66 in impressive fashion. The Gophers also beat Vermont 90-58 and Milwaukee 77-61 earlier this month, giving the team a 3-1 record.
Minnesota still has one of its most challenging games of the season in the beginning of December when the Gophers travel to South Bend, Indiana to take on Notre Dame as a part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The Fighting Irish won 35 games last season, had a 16-1 record at home and lost to Baylor in the NCAA Championship game in April.
With all of these difficult opponents, Whalen said the team will be able to learn more about themselves and how they can improve throughout the season to reach their goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
"You learn a lot early just playing really great teams, and it helps for everything down the road," Whalen said after the victory against Arizona State Sunday. "That was all of our returners' goals was to get back there to the tournament, so we've got to come out and play teams that were there and just to have that experience early before you get to the Big Ten but helps you later down the road as well."