Gophers fans like their counterparts across the league were quick to notice what the biggest difference in this season's Big Ten schedule was from any other year -- earlier conference games.

For the first time every Big Ten team opens conference play with two games in the first week of December. For Minnesota that means hosting Rutgers on Dec. 3 at home and playing Dec. 5 at Nebraska.

“This year is really unique,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said Wednesday morning on 1500 ESPN radio. “Normally, you would kind of look at (nonconference and conference) as two seasons.”

After the early start, the Big Ten schedule picks up nearly a month later for the Gophers with back-to-back home games Jan. 3 against Illinois and Jan. 6 against Indiana. It could be a favorable start for Minnesota with the four of the first six Big Ten games at Williams Arena, including Jan. 13 vs. Purdue at the Barn right after a road game Jan. 10 at Northwestern.

The Big Ten tournament runs a week early this year from Feb. 28 through March 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York. That led to conference games also now being scheduled on Monday and Friday.

Among the teams unable to have home games on certain dates was Minnesota, which can't use the Barn for games during a week in late January and early February 2018 because of the Super Bowl being in Minneapolis.

“We went from a 10-week season to a nine-week season,” Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner said Wednesday on the Big Ten Network. “We moved some games to early December to alleviate some of the compression. But there’s still compression and there always will be when you’re taking 112 games and trying to fit them into a 55-day period.”

Big Ten Network analyst Shon Morris predicted the Gophers returning four starters from a 24-win NCAA tournament team will finish second in the conference behind heavy favorite Michigan State. Morris also mentioned senior All-Big Ten guard Nate Mason as the No. 5 returning player in the league.

Below are my five most intriguing Big Ten matchups for Minnesota and my top five Big Ten teams and players for 2017-18.

KEY MATCHUPS

  1. Dec. 3 vs. Rutgers – Sure, Rutgers finished 14th in the Big Ten with a 3-15 record last season, but the Scarlet Knights should be much improved in Steve Pikiell’s second season. Minnesota will be coming off games against Alabama in the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn on Nov. 25 and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge vs. Miami (Fla.) at home Nov. 29. Playing such an early Big Ten game will be an adjustment, but getting off to a winning start in conference is critical.
  2. Jan. 10 at Northwestern – The Wildcats were the darlings of the college basketball world last season while earning their first NCAA tournament berth in program history. They proved it wasn’t a fluke by advancing to the second round of the Big Dance. The Gophers upset Northwestern in Evanston in 2016-17, so Bryant McIntosh and company will be looking for payback.
  3. Jan. 20 vs. Ohio State at MSG – This will be the first ever Big Ten regular season game in Madison Square Garden. Former Butler coach Chris Holtmann will hope his new Buckeyes team can make a statement on a national stage. Gophers freshman and New York Mr. Basketball Isaiah Washington will likely make it feel like a homecourt advantage.
  4. Feb. 13 vs. Michigan State – The only matchup with the Spartans during the regular season could have Big Ten title implications. Michigan State is likely a top-5 preseason team, but the Gophers have the talent and experience to compete with anyone in the country, especially at home.
  5. Feb. 19 at Wisconsin – This is why there should be protected rivalries in Big Ten basketball. Border rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin only play once this season. Gophers fans have to feel frustrated that they can’t play the Badgers in the Barn when they have their best team in years.

TOP FIVE PLAYERS

  1. Miles Bridges 6-7 sophomore forward Michigan State
  2. Ethan Happ 6-10 junior center Wisconsin
  3. Nate Mason 6-2 senior guard Minnesota
  4. Vince Edwards 6-8 junior forward Purdue
  5. Bryant McIntosh 6-3 senior guard Northwestern

TOP FIVE TEAMS

  1. Michigan State
  2. Gophers
  3. Purdue
  4. Northwestern
  5. Iowa

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