Last week, Minnesota released its full basketball schedule for the 2016-17 season. (Click here for the official University press release.) The schedule outlines non-conference games and television schedules, along with dates for Big Ten match ups.
This is a year for new beginnings as it relates to Minnesota basketball, or at least a year for Richard Pitino to point the program in the right direction (specifically in record, and generally in culture). Let’s take a look at some notable points in the schedule.
Minnesota’s not playing on national television much during the non-conference schedule (not a huge surprise). Four games are on the Big Ten Network: St. John’s (NY) in the Gavitt Tipoff, NJIT, Georgia Southern, and Arkansas State. And, the Gophers play at Florida State on ESPNU in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The non-conference schedule doesn’t jump from the page, or look overly difficult on paper. It’ll be manageable; Minnesota just can’t lose any it’s supposed to win and it needs to win a couple it shouldn’t.
In 2015-16, the Gophers finished 6-6 in the non-conference. Interestingly, neither South Dakota school is on their non-conference schedule. Last year, that turned out to be the start of a disastrous stretch. Minnesota was 5-2; then it played South Dakota and lost in double overtime and South Dakota State and lost 84-70. After that stretch, the Gophers won only once in the next 16 games. (Again, South Dakota is off the schedule.)
St. John’s (NY), Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Florida State will be tougher tests, and usually among the smaller schools on the schedule, there’s always one or two that pop. If Minnesota can finish 8-5, 9-4 or even (gulp) 10-3 in the non-conference, the season’ll be off in the right direction.
It’s tough, at least to start. The Gophers open the Big Ten schedule with Michigan State at home, then travel to Purdue and Northwestern, play Ohio State at home go to Michigan State. That’s the first five; it feels like 0-5 or 1-4 start, unless something breaks for them.
Unfortunately, among those projected to finish in the bottom of the conference, Minnesota plays each only once (and on the road): at Illinois and at Rutgers. (They do have Penn State twice.)
Conversely, the Gophers play the following teams twice: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Maryland (among those projected near the top of the conference).
In a small break, However, they only meet Purdue, Indiana, Iowa and Michigan once.
Navigating the early part of the Big Ten schedule is key. Can they get through those first five games without going 0-5 or 1-4? Because that may be too big a hole from which to climb.
If Minnesota can cushion its record through the non-conference, that’ll help weather a brutal five game stretch to start the Big Ten schedule, which may see them go winless.
It’s tough to project though because the roster’s pretty different. The young talent from last year’s team (Dupree McBrayer, Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason) is older, and could take a leap. Furthermore, new additions (Amir Coffey, Eric Curry, Michael Hurt and Davonte Fitzgerald) might significantly contribute immediately.
Pitino will have more depth this year, which creates more competition for playing time and in theory, a better team. With depth, he’ll also have more diverse lineup options, something not afforded to him last year. It’s just, can they put it all together?