After a promising non-conference record of 12-3, the Golden Gophers went just 6-12 in the Big Ten, missing the NCAA tournament for a 2nd straight season. This season, Richard Pitino's squad will look to have similar success outside the conference, and carry it in to conference play. Today, we take a look at 3 of Minnesota's key opponents outside the conference in the 2015-2016 season.
#1. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Although Oklahoma State loses their top 3 scorers from a year ago, they add two 4-star recruits including the #6 point guard Jawun Evans. They also have 6'8'' forward Chris Olivier transferring in from Eastern Illinois where he posted 13 points per game on 54% shooting last season. The point is, Oklahoma State always has a talented group of players and will provide Minnesota a good test in December before conference play begins.
The game will be held in Sioux Falls South Dakota in a neutral court setting. The key matchup to watch here will be the true freshman Jawun Evans against the backcourt duo Carlos Morris and Nate Mason returning for the Golden Gophers. Oklahoma State is a good matchup for Minnesota after losing their top two rebounders last year as the Cowboys don't have much size up front to intimidate the Gophers. Minnesota should be able to get a win in what should be an interesting neutral court game.
#2. Clemson Tigers
While Clemson isn't usually thought of as a great basketball school, the Tigers present Minnesota with a tough test in the ACC vs. Big Ten Challenge. Clemson returns their 3 top rebounders, all 6'7'' and above including junior forward Jaron Blossomgame, who averaged 13 points per game and 8 rebounds in his sophomore season.
The Gophers, on the other hand, will have to lean on senior Joey King, who averaged 10 points and 3 rebounds last season, to hold down Clemson's front-court. Minnesota will probably rotate their front-line to start the season to see which combination works best. Junior forward Charles Buggs and sophomore center Bakary Konat will see a big increase in minutes from last season. After playing just 13 minutes per game last year, Buggs will get a test early in the season against Clemson. This game should be a big indicator as to whether Minnesota will have enough to compete in the Big Ten or if it will be another season in the bottom half of the conference.
#3. Temple Owls
The Puerto Rico Tip Off is loaded with talent this year, with teams like Butler, Utah, Miami, Temple, and Minnesota. While an even tougher matchup for Minnesota would come against Butler, they will have to beat Temple first to get there. The Owls will lose their leader and top scorer and Will Cummings, but they return their next 6 top scorers from 2014-2015. This includes double digit scorers Quenton DeCosey and Jesse Morgan along with big time rebounder Jaylen Bond.
This game is integral to win for Minnesota as it will create more chances to play quality opponents in the non-conference. With a win against Temple, Minnesota could find themselves playing Butler in the second round and either Miami or Utah after that. A loss, however, would leave Minnesota playing Missouri State and Mississippi State after the Temple game.
All 3 of these match-ups should be very close games. While all three of these teams are beatable for the Golden Gophers, they will be tested in each game. Ultimately, Richard Pitino's team will have to find a way to win in Big Ten play, where they struggled last year. These three non-conference games, however, should get Minnesota ready for hard-fought, down to the wire Big Ten games throughout January and February.