Somehow, some way, in the midst of Jerry Kill retiring, our hearts being ripped out at the half-yard line against Michigan, and the constant uncertainty of the future of the Athletic Department, basketball season has completely crept up on Gopher Nation. On Friday, the Minnesota Golden Gophers will kickoff the 2015-2016 regular season with a slew of exciting freshman and two big men eager to make the leap. The following will examine each non-conference game the Gopher will play. I'll try to keep it brief for each matchup and stick to a fact or two about each opponent. Included next to each team will be last year's record, KenPom rating (for reference purposes, the Gophers finished 58th last year) and conference affiliation. I'll also throw in a casual prediction about the outcome of the game and conclude the post with a few overall thoughts. Keep in mind when reviewing my brief predictions that the Gophers haven't lost to a non-Big 6 school at home since December 9th, 2006.
Friday, November 13th, vs. University of Missouri- Kansas City Kangaroos (14-19, 284th, Western Athletic Conference)
UMKC is a recent addition to the ranks of Division I basketball. However, they do have a bit of a hidden gem in junior point guard Martez Harrison, who was the WAC Player of the Year and an AP All-American (Honorable Mention), the first to accomplish this feat in the program's history. Any team with a player this dynamic could pose a threat to the young Gophers, however, I still think the Gophers emerge from their opener at the Barn victorious.
Sunday, November 15th vs. Unversity of Louisiana-Monroe War Hawks (24-14, 170, Sun Belt Conference)
The increase in difficulty for the Gophers occurs immediately as they face a War Hawks team returning four starters from a 24-win campaign, including talented senior Majok Deng, who averaged 10.7 points and 7.3 rebounds a game last year. Any team that wins that many games and returns that much of their core will be a challenge, regardless of how small the school or conference they play in is. I expect this one to be close, especially considering how sleepy the Barn will be for a Sunday afternoon tip-off. I see a too-close-for-comfort win for the Gophers.
Thursday, November 19th vs. Temple University in San Juan, Puerto Rico (21-11, 54th, American Athletic Conference)
The first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off will present an early season challenge for the Gophers. A team that was considered one of the "last teams out" of the NCAA Tournament last year returns three starters and is led by 10th year head coach Fran Dunphy. There is plenty of talent returning to this team and it will most certainly be one of the most challenging games of the non-conference slate. Since Minnesota is going to be a young team, reliant on in-season player development for improvement this year, I'll predict they drop this one to a more experienced team and coach.
Friday, November 20th vs. Missouri State in San Juan, Puerto Rico (11-20, 262nd, Missouri Valley Conference)
Since I am predicting the Gophers to lose, I'm also predicting Missouri State falls to Butler and faces us on the consolation side of the bracket. The once proud Bears have fallen on hard times, finishing 8th out of 10 teams in the MVC during the 2014-2015 season. However, they return all five starters and the MVC, especially in the last two decades or so, has produced plenty of tough outs. This will not be an easy game for Minnesota. That being said, I believe the Gophers will be up to the task and would advance to the 5th place game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Sunday, November 22nd vs. Miami/Mississippi State/Utah/Texas Tech in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Since it's hard to project out this far, let's generalize and say that this game will be a match-up against a Power 5 conference team who may or may not be any good in the upcoming year. Utah is very talented, so I don't see them being in the consolation side of the bracket. There would be plenty of intrigue if the Gophers happened to match up against former head coach Tubby Smith and his Red Raiders, especially considering the last time the Gophers and Tubby were in Puerto Rico, they were collecting a tournament title. We'll have to wait and see how it all shakes out.
Friday, November 27th vs. University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (12-17, 248th, Summit League)
UNO was on Minnesota's non-conference slate in coach Pitino's first year at the helm during the 2013-2014 season. They once again return to the Barn with two Minnesotans on the roster in senior forward Jake White from Chaska and senior guard Marcus Tyus from Ramsey. This contest should be one where the Gophers build on their experience in Puerto Rico and come away with a victory. However, the post-Thanksgiving mood at the Barn could provide a calm atmosphere. Minnesota should sitll prevail with a victory.
Monday, November 30th vs. Clemson University Tigers (16-15, 80th, Atlantic Coast Conference)
The Gophers will be a part of the first night of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge this year, taking on the Tigers from Clemson. This will be one of the few true barometers for Pitino's crew during the non-conference slate so it should be interesting to see how they respond. They return their leading scoring from last season, junior forward Jaron Blossomgame, who averaged 13.1 points per game last season. They also return a large majority of their roster from the previous year that ended with the Tigers losing 7 of 8 games. They definitely have plenty of athleticism and size and this game will be a good one from the perspective of preparing the Gophers for an increase in skill-level come Big Ten time. Due to the first big time game of the season at the Barn, I think Minnesota is buoyed by the crowd and squeaks out a close victory.
Saturday, December 5th vs. South Dakota Coyotes (17-16, 217th, Summit League)
The Coyotes come to the Barn for the first time as a Division I program. South Dakota is still getting acclimated to the rigors of Division I play and have yet to duplicate the success they found in the Great West Conference, when they won a title in 2009-2010. They return two starters including guard Trey Burnette. This is one of those games where the Gophers should coast to a comfortable victory on a lazy weekend at the Barn. Minnesota's talent and depth should allow them to beat the Coyotes soundly.
Saturday, December 12th vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (18-14, 47th, Big XII)
This will (depending how things go in Puerto Rico) probably be the first team Minnesota faces in 2015-2016 that made the NCAA Tournament last year. They return three starters including senior guard Phil Forte but also add McDonald's All-American point guard Jawun Evans, who was seen by recruiting analysts as one of the best guards in 2015 class. He will no doubt be one of the (if not THE) most talented players the Gophers will face in the non-conference slate. Considering the wacky circumstances of the game taking place at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, all bets are off for this one. I see it being close but the Gophers fall just short.
Wednesday, December 16th vs. Chicago State Cougars (8-24, 333rd, Western Athletic Conference)
This is the "Before Finals Start Get-Away Game" against what should be a thoroughly over matched opponent. Last season, the Cougars finished 333rd out of 351 Division I teams in KenPom overall rating. Junior forward Trayvon Palmer returns to the roster as a Second Team All-WAC selection but outside of that and cataclysmic collapse by a superior Gopher squad, I don't see this game becoming very interesting. A win should be a relatively easy proposition.
Wednesday, December 23rd vs. Milwaukee Panthers (14-16, 198th, Horizon League)
The Panthers enter their 10th year of coach Rob Jeter's tenure. They made the NCAA Tournament as recently as 2014. This is also the "Post Finals Just Before the Christmas Holiday Game" where the Barn is generally half-full and sounding rather cavernous. While the Panthers shouldn't be too much of a challenge, they have a long term coach and are a respectable enough program that this could turn into a trap in a hurry. However, I think cooler heads will prevail and the Gophers will enter the holidays and the conference schedule with a victory in hand.
Even with a roster that is supposed to be "rebuilding," this schedule is weak enough for even the worst Big 6 conference teams to take advantage of and build confidence. The younger players could do some serious damage in some of these games, build game experience, and find their niche in Coach Pitnio's system and gear up for conference play.
The Gophers will not play a true road game during the 2015-2016 season until Wednesday, December 30th in Columbus against the Ohio State Buckeyes. This can be seen as a good thing and/or a bad thing. For one, it will allow some of the younger players to ease into the college game without being intimidated by rowdy road environments. It may also allow the team to rack up some wins and gain some confidence before the vigors of the Big Ten. On the other hand, they might get a bit too comfortable in the confines of the Barn and we could very well see an inability to adapt to road games come conference play. It's always hard to win on the road in the Big Ten, no matter the opponent, but to not have a comparable environment to prepare for it will probably be to the team's detriment when all is said and done.
This schedule has been typical of the schedule the Gophers have trotted out for the better part of the past decade. Bank on a early season tournament with a solid field and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge to buoy an otherwise atrocious slate of games. Sure, there is some intrigue surrounding the showdown with respectable Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls but no true road games and the incredibly low level of non-conference opponents coming to the Barn makes for a pretty poor schedule. Even with massive roster turnover, only two returning starters, and freshman/inexperienced sophomores projected to get a large sum of minutes across the board, there is no reason the Gophers shouldn't be 10-2 or better entering Big Ten play on the 30th of December.
If by some miracle, Minnesota finds themselves on the bubble in March, their SOS number will ultimately keep them out of the Big Dance. We probably don't have to worry about this unfortunate scenario but it is something to keep an eye on for next year when the roster will be full of talent and Pitino will be under some slight pressure to make the NCAA Tournament in his fourth year with the program. It would be my hope that the schedule changes drastically in both structure and level of difficultly next year.