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Don’t Look Now, But Minnesota’s Schedule Could Push Team Back To NCAAs

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After a down year, Minnesota is looking to bounce back.

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

After a tumultuous 2017-’18 season, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are looking to bounce back in Richard Pitino’s sixth year at the helm. While a lot of bad luck led to last year’s underwhelming 15-17 performance, fans are growing weary with the mixed results that the team has shown under Pitino’s leadership.

However, there are some major reasons for optimism this season.

To start, a massive hunk of last year’s contributors return. Isaiah Washington is back after an exciting freshman season, Amir Coffey should return from injury, and both Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy return after solid years. Add in some newcomers like transfer big man Matz Stockman and there’s some real talent to work with this season.

But the question, of course, will be whether it’s enough for the Gophers to get back to national relevance and the NCAA Tournament.

So, will Minnesota make it back?

Well, it’s tough to predict with certainty how players like Washington will improve or how Coffey will return from injury. And whether Stockman can put him big numbers in his first season with Minnesota is a question mark as well. The simple truth is that Minnesota is one of those teams that could swing in a number of different directions.

However, one thing we do know now is how Minnesota’s schedule will look for the upcoming season. We can use this to gain some insight into how the Gophers will perform in the coming months.

Let’s dive into some of the major takeaways.

-The non-conference slate is incredibly manageable.

Often, when one evaluates the schedule for a team, there are a number of games that are automatically marked as losses. Things like road games against Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky fall into this category. Sure, those teams lose at home sometimes, but it’s going to take quite an effort to get there. It’s just not something we can anticipate.

Well, Minnesota doesn’t have any such non-con games this season.

For perspective, let’s just look at the team’s toughest non-con games on paper. Here they are based on last year’s KenPom ratings:

  • No. 29 - Texas A&M (neutral)
  • No. 58 - Utah (home)
  • No. 59 - Oklahoma State (neutral)
  • No. 77 - Boston College (road)
  • No. 98 - Washington (neutral)

Even though Minnesota wasn’t an elite team last season, none of those look particularly overwhelming. A&M will probably be a solid favorite against the Gophers, but that shouldn’t be the type of game Minnesota loses at tip-off.

This is significant because it gives Minnesota a pretty high ceiling in non-conference play this season. The Gophers seriously could finish with two losses or fewer, if the team improves as fans hope. That has to be an exciting thought for fans.

-There’s enough on the Big Ten slate for Minnesota to win games.

Before we jump into Minnesota’s conference schedule, it’s important to remind folks that the Big Ten moved to a 20-game slate this season. What that largely means is that the variations in scheduling fans have seen over the last few years will be reduced substantially. There is still going to some variation, just not nearly as much anymore.

And you see some of this with Minnesota for this season. The Gophers will be heading to some of the tougher road venues like Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin. The team will also get some easier games as well, against teams like Northwestern and Rutgers.

However, one thing that is apparent is that Minnesota has more than enough to put together a solid record against this slate. Just take a look at these games:

  • 12/5 - Nebraska
  • 1/12 - Rutgers
  • 1/16 - at Illinois
  • 1/19 - Penn State
  • 1/27 - Iowa
  • 1/30 - Illinois
  • 2/6 - Wisconsin
  • 2/16 - Indiana
  • 2/24 - at Rutgers
  • 2/28 - at Northwestern

By any measure, those are 10 winnable games for Minnesota. Perhaps one of those opponents improves substantially, but the Gophers have the talent to contend in all of those games. While it’s unlikely that Minnesota will go 10-0 against that slate, it gives the team more than enough to work with for NCAA Tournament purposes.

And those 10 games don’t even include a road game against what should be a weakened Ohio State and three other home games. It’s hard to ever think a home game is a “sure” loss and a road game against the Buckeyes doesn’t necessarily look insanely daunting.

Overall

There’s a lot to be excited about for Minnesota entering this season. The team has plenty of question marks, but the schedule should help Pitino and his staff put together a solid record.