It’s called the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. But Jasmine Brunson prefers the word opportunity over challenge. It just sounds better.
“Every game is a challenge,” said the Gophers guard. She was talking about 20th-ranked Minnesota’s game with No. 12 Syracuse on Thursday night at Williams Arena. “But this is an opportunity. An opportunity to show how hard we’ve been working and the team we’re becoming.”
It’s hard not to look at this game as a litmus test.
The Gophers are 5-0; Lindsay Whalen is just the second coach in program history to start off 5-0. (The other was Pam Borton, who started off 12-0 in the 2002-03 season with a junior guard named Lindsay Whalen).
The Gophers have played well. But the schedule hasn’t been too demanding. The five opponents they have faced were a combined 9-15 after Tuesday’s games. Only one team — Xavier — has a winning record.
Well, the difficulty factor will rise Thursday. Syracuse is 6-1, with their only loss coming on the road, by two points, at No. 3 Oregon. Among the six wins are two vs. ranked teams, a victory over Texas A&M earlier in the season and an overtime victory over DePaul on Saturday.
“It’s great for us,” Whalen said before practice Wednesday. “For us, in our first year taking over the program, it’s really good for us to get a big test here. And it’s at home. It should be a great atmosphere [Thursday] night.”
The teams are similar. Both teams had 20-plus-win seasons in 2017-18, both made it to the NCAA tournament — Syracuse for the sixth straight season. Both teams are experienced, but Syracuse — with all five starters returning from last season — more so.
Both teams are led by their backcourt. Brunson and Kenisha Bell for the Gophers, Tiana Mangakahia and Gabrielle Cooper for Syracuse.
Mangakahia, who hit the game-winner in overtime against DePaul, is coming off ACC player of the week honors. She is, as Brunson said, “the head of the snake.”
“She is a great guard who really likes to run the floor,” Bell said. “She gets her team where it needs to be. She’s great at penetrate-kick. She just creates good shots for other people, and she can score herself. I think this is a big test for us, and how good we are. This gives our team an opportunity.”
There’s that word again. After Thursday’s game the Gophers will have five more before the Big Ten schedule begins against Wisconsin in late December. Among those final five opponents, surprising Boston College (6-1) would appear to be the best test. The other four teams are a combined 6-16.
That only makes the Syracuse game that much more important. The Orange has seven players scoring at least seven points per game and a rotation that goes 10 deep. They play mainly a zone defense, moving between a 1-2-2 and a 2-3. With a long and lean roster, they play zone well.
“We’ve watched a lot of film on ’em,” Bell said. “They have good guards who create for the team. They shoot well. And they have some good rebounders. This is a good matchup, because we have a similar team.’’