It is no secret that the Big Ten, a conference that sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, is one of the most competitive leagues in college basketball. This year, however, head coach Richard Pitino has not needed to wait until the start of conference play to learn how his team stacks up against top competition.
On a Minnesota roster that features seven newcomers in 2019-20, there was little time to gel as a group before taking on strong programs as Pitino challenged his team with a difficult non-conference schedule. With guard Amir Coffey declaring for the NBA draft last June and forward Eric Curry suffering a season-ending knee injury, Pitino is honest when he says he expected to have a more experienced group when he made the schedule.
"When I made [the schedule] I thought Eric would be healthy and Amir would be a senior," Pitino said. "That doesn't mean we can't be excited about where we are going... We want to challenge our guys."
After a 85-50 opening-night victory against Cleveland State, the Gophers hit the road for a 16-day stretch without a game at home. In that time, they faced three power conference opponents, two in true road contests, dropping each game by a single-digit margin.
First came a 71-62 defeat against Oklahoma in Sioux Falls, SD before a 64-56 defeat at Butler. Three days later, Minnesota had a game over 1,300 miles west of Indianapolis when they took on Utah in Salt Lake City. Pitino says his players looked tired as the Utes jumped out to a 16-0 lead, though the Gophers battled back before ultimately falling 73-69.
"I thought the Utah game, I'm not sure we did our guys any favors with that scheduling," Pitino said. "They just seemed exhausted, that was a long week."
A pair of home victories against Central Michigan and North Dakota got the Gophers back to 3-3 until another loss, this time at home to a then-undefeated DePaul team that dropped the Gophers to 0-4 against power conference opponents. That changed last Monday with a convincing 78-60 victory over ACC opponent Clemson.
Having played five opponents from major conferences before the start of Big Ten play, Pitino says this has been his most difficult early season slate in his time at Minnesota. According to ESPN, Minnesota's strength of schedule ranks 30th in Division I. The four non-conference opponents who beat Minnesota currently have a combined record of 32-5.
"We have one of the toughest non-conference schedules we have played since I've been here," Pitino said before the season. "Which is exciting, it will make us better ... It used to be you could have a bunch and work your way up to the tough games, you can't do that anymore."
Moving forward, the schedule does not get any easier for the Gophers. Minnesota opened Big Ten play with a 20-point loss at Iowa and will host an Ohio State team, currently ranked at No. 3 in the AP poll, later this week. Last season, Minnesota played Ohio State in early December as well, a 79-59 defeat for Minnesota.
"It was a rude awakening," sophomore Gabe Kalscheur said of last year's game against the Buckeyes. "It was surprising how much physicality changed from non-conference play to conference play."
Following that game, Minnesota has two more non-conference games, one against Oklahoma State, who is 7-2 on the year. That matchup will be at a neutral site, albeit in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which should serve as a de facto home game for the Cowboys.
While the non-conference schedule may prove too difficult for this year's team, the hope is that it will prepare the players for opponents they will face later in the season. In this week's AP Poll, three Big Ten teams are ranked in the top-five.
"I think when it gets around to conference play, everyone knows they need to step it up," said senior Michael Hurt. "Anyone, when they're playing well, can win any night. This league is really competitive."