Trying to bounce back from a four-win conference record last season, the Gophers men’s basketball team opens Big Ten play with early December games against Ohio State and Nebraska this year.
The Big Ten schedule was released Tuesday with a 20-game conference slate (10 home, 10 road) for each team for the first time. Minnesota opens league play Dec. 2 at Ohio State, followed by a Dec. 5 home conference opener against Nebraska.
After New Year’s Day, the Gophers pick up conference play again by traveling to Madison on Jan. 3 to play Wisconsin. Two home games follow against Maryland on Jan. 8 and Rutgers on Jan. 12. Six of their first 10 league games are at Williams Arena, including Penn State (Jan. 19), Iowa (Jan. 27) and Illinois (Jan. 30).
That flips to six road games in the final 10, including playing potential league title contenders such as Purdue (Feb. 3), Michigan State (Feb. 9), Nebraska (Feb. 13) and Maryland (March 8).
The full nonconference schedule has yet to be released, but the Nov. 6 season opener is against Nebraska Omaha. The Gophers already have announced games against Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Boston College and Utah.
Coming off a 15-17 season, Gophers coach Richard Pitino won’t have to worry about high preseason praise like a year ago, when his team was picked to be a Big Ten title contender. At best, the U might be considered a sleeper this season.
“I think everybody on our roster right now can contribute and play,” Pitino said this summer. “And that’s exciting.”
The Gophers return All-Big Ten senior forward Jordan Murphy, who led the team in scoring (16.8) and the conference in rebounding (11.3) last season. The 6-7 Murphy also tied for the NCAA Division I lead with 24 double-doubles as a junior.
Junior guard Amir Coffey ranked third on the team in scoring (14.0) and second in assists (3.1) last season. Senior guard Dupree McBrayer averaged 9.4 points in 27 games. But McBrayer and Coffey only played 15 games together last season because of injuries.
Minnesota added more depth by welcoming six newcomers this season, including local recruits Daniel Oturu, Jarvis Omersa and Gabe Kalscheur. Wis.-Milwaukee graduate transfer Brock Stull will join the team soon.
The Gophers were coming off Pitino’s first NCAA tournament team at Minnesota, but plummeted last season after center Reggie Lynch’s suspension and injuries to Coffey and McBrayer lingered. Minnesota went from a 3-1 league start to dropping 14 of its last 15 games. The season ended in late February with a first-round loss to last-place Rutgers in the Big Ten tournament in New York.
An early ESPN prediction last week pegged the Gophers as the 11th-best team in the conference for 2018-19 — exactly where they finished in the standings in 2017-18 with a 4-14 record.
“Obviously, things happened out of our control,” Pitino said. “If you look at this team, I look at our young guys. We’ve got a real nice blend of young talent.”