PARADISE ISLAND, BAHAMAS - Much has been said about this year's Gophers men's basketball team.
It is supposed to be better, stronger and deeper than any of coach Tubby Smith's previous teams at Minnesota. This team is expected to be more successful than those teams of the past, too.
We should have a very good idea of just how much of that is true very soon.
The Gophers enter the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas on Thursday with their greatest test of the young season by far: Duke, the No. 5 team in the country and a perennial national powerhouse that has won four NCAA titles under head coach Mike Krzyzewski
"I think that hypes everybody up when you see that name [Duke] pop up in the tournament that you're playing in," Gophers junior Austin Hollins said.
But Hollins also cautioned that once the Gophers get on the court, they have to treat Duke like "just another team." -- and for good reason. The Gophers can't yield too much respect to the Blue Devils because they're just the first in a string of nonconference challenges ahead. Following the Duke matchup, the Gophers continue to face a solid stretch of competition in their nonconference schedule.
By the time New Year's rolls around, it should be fairly evident whether this team will be able to compete in the Big Ten, or if it's another case of overblown expectations.
"We know that we're capable of going out there and beating Duke [and other teams]," Rodney Williams said. "But right now, I kind of feel like it's us against the world."
In most years under Smith, it's been premature to judge the Gophers before a healthy dose of conference play. Last season, Minnesota went 12-1 in the nonconference slate before stumbling to a 6-12 conference record. Two years ago when the Gophers won against North Carolina and West Virginia in an early tournament (but didn't play any other very weighty opponents), they collapsed in the Big Ten, losing 10 of their final 11 games.
This season's nonconference slate, however, is menacing enough to perhaps provide a real glimpse of what this team is about. After a comeback win against Richmond at home, the Gophers are in the midst of a very tough five-game stretch, facing first Duke and then either No. 19 Memphis or VCU in the Bahamas, and will receive a third, undetermined opponent from a talented field that includes No. 2 Louisville and No. 13 Missouri. Immediately afterward, the team flies to Tallahassee to play Florida State on its home court. A couple of weeks later, the Gophers hit the road again to play the improved USC Trojans.
"It's always important to get a challenging nonconference schedule," said assistant coach Joe Esposito, who is the main scheduler for the Gophers. "We do have a lot of travel, but hopefully it will make us stronger and we'll be able to perform well on the road."
A team's schedule is reflected in its RPI, which strongly rewards teams for playing opponents in contention for conference titles, regardless of how strong that conference is. Considering the level of competition across the board -- including South Dakota State, which should have a strong season -- this year's nonconference slate appears to be one of the toughest the Gophers have had in recent memory.
For the most part, the players and coaches embrace the challenge, believing it will improve the team's durability and national brand.
"We love playing more challenging games because it gets us ready for that conference play," Williams said. "For me, the more competitive game it is, the more fun I'm out there having. It's a chance for us to put our name out there on the national level."
While Smith recognizes that the benefits outweigh the costs, he is wary of the threat of overextending his team before a tough conference season, something he's seen before.
"It didn't help us the last two years," Smith said, nothing that his players already have to compete in the strongest league in college basketball. "We were probably worn down."
And, of course, playing top competition only works if the venture is at least moderately successful.
"You don't want to play yourself out of the NCAA tournament," Esposito said.