Traditionally, Minnesota has fared quite well in non-conference play. Over the last two seasons, they've had a 22-4 record outside the Big Ten (not including the post season). Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case so far this season. The Gophers, at 6-6, have some work left to reach the NCAA tournament, or even the NIT. (Both are somewhat lofty goals, honestly.)
Here the team stands though. Some of the freshman have been moved into larger roles, and performed well overall (Kevin Dorsey, Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer in particular). At times though, the freshman still look like freshman.
The frontcourt, which was a glaring weakness coming into the season, hasn't been the biggest issue. Pitino needs better, more consistent play from Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou hasn't seen the floor much, which indicates that he's not quite ready. I suspect frontcourt depth/experience will become a larger problem against Big Ten competition, but for now, Pitino's been able to go small, or use Konate as the central big man.
Consistent defensive effort and shooting have plagued Minnesota thus far. On a night when they don't play defense with effort and their shooting is off, it's ugly. (See the South Dakota Sate game.) Big Ten teams -- theoretically better competition -- will exploit poor or late defensive rotations.
The Big Ten Schedule
Luckily, the conference schedule breaks in Minnesota's favor, relatively speaking. Sure, the Gophers are at Ohio State on Wednesday night, and then host Michigan State at the Barn. But, Ohio State's been up-and-down, although the Buckeyes recently beat Kentucky. And, Michigan State is number 1 in the country, but will play Minnesota without its star, Denzel Valentine.
Minnesota only has three ranked teams on its schedule (at this moment): Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland. The Gophers play them each only once, and all three games are at home. At Iowa, on Valentine's Day, will be a tough road test, and two games each against Indiana and Northwestern will be struggles, based on how those teams are playing to date.
Otherwise, the schedule is somewhat friendly. The Gophers play Rutgers and Illinois twice each, very winnable. And, a vulnerable, at this point, Wisconsin team visits Minnesota late in the season.
Having their three toughest games (on paper) at home is a plus, and only playing those three teams once is a break. Getting Rutgers and Illinois twice is a schedule bonus. Most project Minnesota near the bottom of the Big Ten; they've certainly floated near the bottom in our power rankings.
I thought Pitino figured some things out after the Clemson game, and I like the idea of Minnesota going small. (Oftentimes they don't have a choice but to.) However, whether the Gophers are competitive in these Big Ten games will depend mostly on its defense. Missed or sloppy rotations will be exposed to a greater degree against better competition.
The shooting component is somewhat out of Pitino's control. If they're getting good shots, but not hitting them, they'll have to live with it. (Personally, I think they need to attack more, which is what McBrayer has been doing lately.) However, the defense is in their control, especially the execution of sound defensive principles.
Other than Rutgers, Minnesota will be underdogs in every Big Ten game. It's just a question of how much. That's not to say that they'll go 2-16 in Big Ten play, but their conference win total is probably closer to four or five. Either way, Minnesota will have opportunities to amass quality wins, and if not enough for the post season this year, definitely opportunities to build toward something bigger next season.