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Three takeaways on Minnesota’s 2017-18 schedule

Golden Gophers will be challenged this year in both non-conference and league play.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The big news in the Big Ten this week was the releasing of the conference schedule for the upcoming season. That came out on Wednesday, and lucky for us that the Minnesota Golden Gophers released their non-conference schedule the day before.

So now we can finally look ahead to some potential matchups for the upcoming season, which should be another strong one for the Golden Gophers. Minnesota returns four of five starters from last year’s 24-win team and will enter next season as a contender in the Big Ten. That’s a complete 180 from last year when Minnesota stormed onto the scene as the league’s biggest turnaround squad.

With higher expectations comes a more difficult schedule, and that appears to be the case for Minnesota this year. The non-conference schedule will feature a handful of road tests and an opportunity to host a fellow league championship contender in Miami. Head coach Richard Pitino believes the non-conference schedule will provide plenty of challenges for his Golden Gophers.

"Our non-conference schedule is going to provide us a great test early on in the year," Pitino said in a statement. "With several high-profile opponents who are also coming off NCAA Tournament appearances, we will have a chance to prepare our team for the Big Ten season.”

Along with a challenging non-conference schedule comes a league slate that is also not forgiving. So with that let’s take a look at three key takeaways from the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ 2017-18 schedule.

1. Non-conference schedule features road challenges.

My biggest takeaway from the non-conference schedule reveal was that Minnesota will be tested away from home this season.

Of the Golden Gophers’ 13 non-conference games only four will be played away from the Barn. However, each one of those four teams will provide challenging matchups.

Minnesota has true road games at Providence (Nov. 13) and Arkansas (Dec. 9), and will also play Massachusetts (Nov. 24) and Alabama (Nov. 25) in Brooklyn as part of the Barclays Center Classic. Both Providence and Arkansas made the NCAA Tournament last year, and Alabama is expected to be much improved this year. Don’t sleep on UMass as well. Each one of these games will exciting and challenging matchups for Minnesota.

The only truly tough home opponent on Minnesota’s non-conference schedule is Miami (Nov. 29), who comes to town during the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. If Minnesota wins at least three of these five challenging matchups, then expect them to finish non-conference play no worse than 11-2.

2. Second half of Big Ten play will make or break this team.

As I mentioned before, Minnesota enters this year as a contender to win the league. If they’re going to do that then they’ll have to overcome a difficult second half of league play.

Of Minnesota’s final nine Big Ten games eight are against NCAA tournament contending teams. That includes homes games against Northwestern (Jan. 23) and Michigan State (Feb. 13), road trips to Michigan (Feb. 3), Indiana (Feb. 9), Wisconsin (Feb. 19) and Purdue (Feb. 25), and two games against Iowa (away on Jan. 30 and home on Feb. 21). The lone non-NCAA Tournament contender is Nebraska, who comes to Minneapolis on Feb. 6.

You can argue that Indiana and Iowa may not be good enough to reach the NCAA Tournament this year, but it’s still not easy going to Bloomington and Iowa City. Combine that with games against teams that surely will contend for the NCAA Tournament, and you have a brutal finish to the season.

So the Golden Gophers will have their work cut out for them if they are going to truly make some noise and contend for a Big Ten championship. It’s never easy winning a championship in this league, and that’s definitely going to be the case for Minnesota.

3. Playing Wisconsin just once is a shame.

So we already knew this was the case when the double plays were announced a few weeks ago but it’s again worth pointing out. How can the league let this happen?

Minnesota and Wisconsin share one of the Big Ten’s best basketball rivalries and should always play each other twice. It’s also a double bummer because both teams should be solid this year — which hasn’t been the case most recently — creating an even better rivalry matchup.

There’s always a chance these two bitter rivals could meet again in the Big Ten Tournament or even the NCAA Tournament, but that is mostly unlikely. This schedule is a solid one for Minnesota but this blunder really hurts the Golden Gophers.