If last season’s schedule taught Gophers coach Richard Pitino anything, it was that finding balance is important.
In power conferences such as the Big Ten, strong nonconference slates can quickly make for a strenuous season. The payoff, however, is exposure gained from big matchups, critical for a rebuilding program trying to put a stamp on its brand. Pitino’s first year was a prime example of the pros and cons: The Gophers ranked in the top-10 for strength of schedule and gained exposure, but they didn’t win enough of those tough games and fell just short of the NCAA tournament.
On Monday, as the Gophers continued to set their schedule for the upcoming season, the Big Ten and the Big East announced an annual series between the two power conferences, set to begin in the 2015-16 season. The series — dubbed the Gavitt Tipoff, after Big East founder and former Providence coach and athletic director Dave Gavitt — will bring the Gophers more of those pros and cons. The series will take place during the first week of the regular season and involve eight games each year for at least eight seasons. The Big Ten has a similar annual series with the ACC, typically at the start of December.
“It definitely expands our brand and certainly [Big Ten commissioner] Jim Delany has proven he’s ahead of the curve with all those things,” Pitino said. “It’s very obvious that he’s trying to get exposure in the East. And he believes that with Maryland and Rutgers [joining the league this coming season] that the Big Ten brand will become stronger in the East.”
Pitino repeatedly has pointed out the value of tournaments such as the Maui Classic, which Minnesota competed in last season and was scheduled before he arrived. Already on the books for next season is a November matchup against his father, Rick Pitino, and a Louisville team that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in March. The game will take place at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen in Puerto Rico.
After the end of this past season, however, Pitino hinted that he would look into lightening the nonconference load in the future.
“I don’t think the schedule was a hindrance,” Pitino said Monday, referring to last season. “Certainly, some of the things we did in games, we only have ourselves to blame.
“But you’ve got to be very smart in scheduling. … We played a top-10 schedule, we got to 20 wins and it didn’t pan out for us.
“The Maui [tournament], although it was a great experience for us, it didn’t pan out in our favor. It just didn’t, and that hurt us.”
This fall, the Gophers will be competing in the NIT season tip-off in New York, which is expected to be somewhat less grueling than Maui, where the Gophers lost to Syracuse and Arkansas. Other announced teams for the late November tournament include Gonzaga, Georgia, St. John’s and Western Kentucky. Minnesota still is finalizing the schedule for 2014-15, and the Gophers’ only other nonconference game away from home will be at Wake Forest, their ACC-Big Ten Challenge opponent.
Pitino said Monday that the team still is seeking out contracts for three more guaranteed home games for next season. The rest of the nonconference matchups will be made public when the full schedule is released, usually in midsummer.
The nonconference schedule, as Pitino has said, likely will be softer than last season’s — but he doesn’t want or expect the level of competition to drop off much. He said each year’s schedule is selected to take into account different rosters and preparation needs.
“There are so many things going into it,” Pitino said. “We’re always going to have a strong schedule because we are in one of the best conferences in all of college basketball. Now, you want to expand your brand because Minnesota basketball is not a finished product. We’ve got to build this. We’re not at the stage where it recruits itself.”