We’re all caught up in the glory of an 8-0 start to the football season, but with the bye week upon us it’s a great time to remind you that GOPHER BASKETBALL BEGINS TONIGHT. That’s right. Minnesota squares off with Southwest Minnesota State tonight at the Barn in the first and only exhibition game for the Gophers. They beat Iowa State a couple weeks ago in a closed scrimmage in Ames.
The Gophers finally have a complete schedule for the upcoming season, one that features a pretty impressive non-conference slate that will have Minnesota facing some P6 teams both at home, on the road and in neutral locations. In a year where roster turnover was high, expectations are anywhere from sneaking into the NCAA Tournament to finishing near the bottom of the conference. So for a team searching for an identity, having the opportunity to face stiffer competition early in the year will provide an early measuring stick on what we can expect this season. Let’s break the non-conference schedule:
Cleveland State Vikings
Nov. 5 @ Williams Arena
2019 finish: Did not qualify for conference tournament
Once a formidable opponent in the Horizon League, the Vikings have fallen on hard times since their last postseason appearance, a second-round exit in the 2015 CIT. They are on their third coach since then and failed to qualify for the Horizon conference tournament last year for the first time since 1995. They are a long ways from their first-round NCAA Tournament upset in 2009.
This year they are picked to finish last in the Horizon League as the program rebuilds under first-year coach Dennis Gates, a former Florida State assistant. The Gophers should win this one going away before the schedule becomes markedly more difficult.
Nov. 9 @ Denny Sanford PREMIER Center (Sioux Falls, SD)
2019 finish: Lost in NCAA second round
The Sooners might look at the Gophers and see a Big Ten version of themselves. That’s because, while they return three key contributors from a team that made the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year, only one other player on the roster has seen any playing time. Rebuilding year? Maybe, but only as much as you’d consider Minnesota to be in a rebuilding year. Three key contributors is a nice foundation for any team.
Oklahoma is currently projected to finish near the bottom of the Big 12, but in a neutral court matchup in South Dakota early in the season, it’s anyone’s guess how this will play out. If nothing else, it will be a great early measuring stick for a Minnesota squad that will be figuring out its own identity.
Butler Bulldogs [GAVITT GAMES]
Nov. 12 @ Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indianapolis, IN)
2019 finish: Lost in NIT first round
In the fifth annual Gavitt Games, a series between the Big East and Big Ten, the Gophers get another good test early in the season, and the first of two true road games against a P6 team. The Bulldogs are coming off just their second losing season since 2005, and they missed the NCAA Tournament for just the first time since 2014. It was definitely a bizarre season in Indy.
Still, Butler is looking to bounce back, and they have the nation’s second-longest non-conference home winning streak (50) behind only Duke. It’s going to be a difficult task for a Minnesota team who lacks a ton of experience.
Utah Runnin’ Utes
Nov. 15 @ Jon M. Huntsman Center (Salt Lake City, UT)
2019 finish: Lost in Pac-12 quarterfinals
The Utes have undergone quite a transformation since 2018-19, having lost an impressive seven players to transfer from last year’s team. What does that mean? A ton of new faces and a fresh challenge for the Utes, who likely won’t have it all figured out by the time the Gophers come into town.
Minnesota and Utah are finishing up a home-and-home series, the first half of which went the way of the Gophers. Utah is expected finish somewhere around the middle of the pack in the Pac-12.
Central Michigan Chippewas
Nov. 21 @ Williams Arena
2019 finish: Lost in CBI first round
The Chippewas present a sneaky trap game for the Gophers once Minnesota returns from a true non-conference road trip. Not only are they a MAC team, they’re picked to finish second in the West division. They shoot three-pointers well and they get to the free-throw line at a crazy rate. That’s a good recipe for taking down a major opponent on the road.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Nov. 24 @ Williams Arena
2019 finish: Lost in Summit quarterfinals
As North Dakota works to find a basketball identity, freshman coach Paul Sather will have his hands full when the Hawks arrive at Williams Arena. North Dakota is still finding its footing after a recent reclassification to D-I basketball and it’s inaugural season in the Summit League last year left something to be desired as the team struggled to 12-18 finish overall. The outlook isn’t altogether positive this year either, as UND is projected to finish in the bottom tier of the Summit.
The Hawks are a small team and will likely struggle to keep up with Daniel Oturu in the front court. Look for the Gophers to cruise in this one.
DePaul Blue Demons
Nov. 29 @ Williams Arena
2019 finish: Lost in CBI championship
The power conference teams keep on coming in the front end of a home-and-home series against DePaul. The Blue Demons are on the rise and will certainly be an unpredictable opponent. They won 19 games last season (their most since 2007), and nearly won the CBI crown. And while they lose three of their top scorers, they are also bringing in a recruiting class that was ranked 25th by ESPN.
They have a ton of talent to replace, and while they’re picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East, the newcomers they’re bringing in could provide a challenge to an unproven Minnesota squad.
Clemson Tigers [BIG TEN/ACC CHALLENGE]
Dec. 2 @ Williams Arena
2019 finish: Lost in NIT second round
Clemson is going to have a tough row to hoe as it claws its way back to basketball relevance. A year after narrowly missing out on the NCAA tournament the Tigers lost four of their five starters to graduation, and also lost two of their projected starters to ACL injuries in the offseason. Tack on the uncertain status of two impact transfers and Clemson is in a pretty uncertain situation when it comes to its roster.
If the situation tips their way, they could make some noise in the middle of the ACC pack, if not, however, Clemson could be in an uphill climb all season. This should be a winnable game for the Gophers
Oklahoma State Cowboys [BOK CENTER BASKETBALL SHOWDOWN]
Dec. 21 @ BOK Center (Tulsa, OK)
2019 finish: Lost in Big 12 tournament first round
It was a strange year in Stillwater. A year after a surprise run to the NCAA Tournament, the Cowboys had three players thrown off the team in mid-January amidst an off-the-court incident and, not surprisingly, the team suffered, finishing 12-20 on the year. That all happened after OSU came to town for a U.S. Bank Stadium Final Four test drive in a game the Gophers narrowly won. This year, the Cowboys return all five of their starters from last year and bring in the 22nd-ranked recruiting class, according to 247 Sports, so they may have the cohesiveness to be dangerous in the Big 12.
The Gophers face OSU on a “neutral” court in Tulsa as part of the BOK Center Showdown, so there will be a friendly crowd for the Cowboys. It will be another tough test for the Gophers who finally finish up their gauntlet of P6 opponents.
Florida International Panthers
Dec. 28 @ Williams Arena
2019 finish: Lost in CIT second round
The non-conference slate wraps up near the end of the calendar year with a visit from everyone’s favorite public school in Miami. But don’t sleep on FIU. The Panthers run a unique style of basketball that led them to 20 wins last year for just the fourth time in school history, and second-year coach Jeremy Ballard’s new approach saw FIU lead the nation in tempo (i.e., possessions per 40 minutes) and steals per game (more than 10). It’s a recipe that had the Panthers in the second round of the CIT after years of struggles. This year FIU returns four starters.
Still, the Panthers are a bad free throw shooting team and an even worse three-point shooting team. Assuming the Gophers can take care of the ball they should be able to wrap up the non-conference season with a win.