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Minnesota 2017-18 Preview: How will Gophers handle high expectations?

The Gophers have considerably higher expectations compared to last season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Minnesota vs Middle Tennessee State
Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino during the first half of the game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at BMO Harris Bradley Center.
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

For the Minnesota Golden Gophers, expectations are high heading into 2017-18, which is a complete 180-degree turn from where we found Minnesota just one year ago.

The Gophers, who were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten last year, will enter this season with arguably the second-best set of returning pieces behind a star-studded Michigan State roster. The Gophers are set to return six of their top seven leading scorers.

They are made up of All-Big Ten First Team member senior guard Nate Mason, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year senior center Reggie Lynch and Big Ten All-Freshman honoree sophomore guard Amir Coffey. Minnesota will also feature freshman guard Isaiah Washington — New York's Mr. Basketball last season — that could prove extremely valuable during the onset of his career, junior forward Jordan Murphy and not to mention junior guard Dupree McBrayer — the Gophers' 3-point percentage leader (.448).

It will be exciting to see how Minnesota reacts to these expectations compared to last season when they were able to fly under the radar on its way to an impressive 24-10 record (11-7 Big Ten) and a fourth-place finish in the conference, which included a win over Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. All this following an offseason filled with suspensions, arrests and other distractions. Despite a talented group assembled by Richard Pitino, who now enters his fifth season at the helm, many believed the beleaguered Gophers would be unable to succeed.

“We were picked 13 last year, and we showed that all that talk is irrelevant,” Pitino said in his first press conference of the season. “It’s the same thing this year. Some of (the media) have us picked toward the top. None of it really matters. At the end of the day, if we let our play do the talking, none of it will really matter.”

However, Pitino improved the Gophers from an 8-win team in 2015-16 to a 24-win team last year — the largest win improvement in school history. Minnesota's 11 Big Ten wins were three more than they had in conference play the previous two seasons combined. And it marked the Gophers' first season above .500 in conference play since 2004-05 when they finished 10-6 to tie for 4th under Dan Monson. Pitino now is 75-61 in four seasons at Minnesota.

Despite loads of talent spread around the court, Pitino will be without Eric Curry who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in September. The loss of Curry will pose some serious questions in the Gopher frontcourt outside of Lynch and Murphy. Will Bakary Konate pick up the bulk of those minutes? And how will Davonte Fitzgerald respond coming off of his second ACL tear from a year ago?

We will find out the first glimpse of this year’s Gophers on Nov. 2 when Minnesota takes on Concordia-St. Paul in its first exhibition of the new year. After that, they will play Green Bay in an exhibition raising money for hurricane relief.