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What Should The Minnesota Golden Gophers Expect In Big Ten Play?

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Last season, the Gophers finished the non-conference 11-2 (for the second consecutive year), but started Big Ten play 0-5. Can they get off to a faster start?

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Minnesota finished 18-15 overall, 6-12 in the Big Ten.  Traditionally, the Gophers have fared well in the non-conference schedule, but have struggled once conference play begins.  Over the last two seasons, the Gophers have been 22-4 in non-conference games, but just 14-22 in the Big Ten.

Where does this Gopher team stand heading into the season?  They have a young team, but it’s Richard Pitino’s third season, and his form of the program will start to take hold, presumably.  Graduating Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu means a less experienced backcourt, but perhaps it'll now be a backcourt molded more to Pitino’s liking.  Let’s take a look at their schedule, and how that’ll project their record.

Non-Conference (November & December)

Minnesota should get off to a good start again this season.  Their non-conference schedule isn't particularly daunting (at the moment), but they will travel to San Juan for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in mid-November, where they’ll play Temple in the first round.  But, Missouri State, Butler, Miami, Mississippi State, Utah and Texas Tech are all potential opponents, depending upon how Minnesota plays.

Almost directly after Puerto Rico, the Clemson Tigers will visit the Barn on Monday, November 30th for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.  Aside from whoever they may play in Puerto Rico, this’ll be an early high-profile, major conference test.  Clemson, looking to improve in a loaded conference, finished near the middle of the ACC last season.

After a trip through South Dakota (South Dakota and South Dakota State University), the Gophers will meet Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, SD.  The Cowboys, much like Clemson, finished near the middle of the Big 12 conference.

Each non-conference game appears winnable, and it stands to chance that Minnesota will enter Big Ten play with a very positive record.

Big Ten Conference (January, February & March)

Technically, Minnesota begins Big Ten play in December (on the road against Ohio State), but for organizational purposes, we’ll lump that game on December 30th into January.

Earlier, I mentioned the difference between their non-conference and conference records.  Minnesota will hope to avoid the start they had last season.  To open Big Ten play, the Gophers lost five in a row, and six of seven.  Ultimately, starting 0-5, or 1-6, creates a difficult hole out of which to dig.  Now, the good news is they played two ranked opponents in that stretch, and four of the five losses were by five points or less (Purdue by four, Ohio State by two in O.T., Michigan by five and Iowa by two).

It’s doubtful Pitino will take such solace in moral victories, but they were competitive through a tough opening slate.  Looking at 2016’s opening Big Ten schedule, the Gophers have Ohio State and Michigan State (at home) to start play, so they’ll be tested immediately, and it’ll be interesting to see how they respond.  Let's take a look at some of the bigger games:

December 30th @ Ohio State
Losing this game wouldn't be the end of the world, but winning it would mean a good conference start, on the road.  The Gophers will be tested at Ohio State, but OSU needs to replace some key pieces from last year's team.  They may be ripe for an upset early in Big Ten play.

January 2nd vs. Michigan State
Much like the Ohio State game (see above), losing isn't going to destroy the season, but it's the Big Ten home opener, and an important early season contest.  Michigan State is also dealing with some uncertainty, but has senior Denzel Valentine returning to anchor the squad.

February 14th @ Iowa
Not that this rivalry is particularly strong, but they tend to recruit the same areas, and Iowa should be pretty good.  Border battles are always tough, and by this point, we may know the trajectory of the Gopher season.

March 2nd vs. Wisconsin
These two compete for recruits regularly.  Lately it has been Wisconsin reaching into Minnesota to pluck talent, which only adds to the rivalry.  Also, at this point, Minnesota may be a bubble team, which means they could need a win against a quality opponent to beef up their NCAA tournament resume.  Wisconsin has a few unknowns, but more than likely they'll be competitive, and a win against Wisconsin will only help them reach the NCAA tournament.

Overall
The Gophers benefit from a couple schedule quirks.  They only play Michigan State, Maryland and Wisconsin once, and those games are at Williams Arena.  Some of their most difficult challenges this season will be in the friendly confines.

Also, no one seems totally sure how good the Big Ten will be this season.  Maryland is, of course, a top-5 preseason team, according to almost all sources.  But, where does everyone else fall?  Michigan State and Ohio State are always competitive, but still have questions.  Wisconsin stands to take a small step back without Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Josh Gasser, but Bo Ryan always fields a competitive team.  There are high expectations surrounding Indiana, and Michigan is 20-25 (depending on the source) in preseason rankings.

Minnesota will have opportunities to perhaps outperform expectations in what should be considered a transitional year.   Somewhere slightly over 20 wins overall, and a .500 record in Big Ten play is not unrealistic this season.  Both of which should bring them to the brink of the NCAA tournament.