Striking a balance on an NCAA schedule isn’t an easy task.
Ideally, a program lines up strong enough competition to keep fans intrigued and bolster a solid resume come postseason, but not so strong that it risks embarrassing losses and fatigue before the conference schedule begins (particularly a concern when a team plays in the Big Ten, consistently one of the toughest leagues in the country).
A year ago, Minnesota played the No. 9 overall strength of schedule (SOS) in the nation, but the high mark wasn't enough to push the Gophers on the right side of the bubble.
This season, the Gophers may hope they don't need the boost. The non-conference slate, released yesterday as the conference schedule was being announced, likely won't do Minnesota any favors if it needs another selling point in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee in March.
The Preseason NIT Tip-Off is not yet finalized, but even the presence of nameless slots in the three-game span represents possibility when it comes to this lackluster non-conference schedule. Outside of Big Ten play, the Gophers have just one top-100 matchup currently scheduled, Louisville. Two opponents -- UMBC and Furman -- ranked below 325th nationally a year ago according to kenpom.com, and save from Louisville and Wake Forest, the Gophers don't have any opponents within the top 200 on the docket. The Gophers hope that will change, of course, when the NIT field is revealed. St. John's, Gonzaga and Georgia were all originally committed to the tournament -- and would provide a seemingly necessary boost to the current lineup -- but none of those schools have posted their schedules just yet, so it can't be taken as a guarantee.
As for Big Ten schedule, it could be worse. The Gophers face Ohio State (home), Michigan, Indiana and Michigan State (all on the road) just once each, and should benefit from a lighter stretch in the heart of January that includes games vs. Rutgers, Illinois and Penn State around a road trip to Nebraska. The tough spans include the start to the season -- two road games and then Ohio State (home), Michigan (road) and Iowa (home) -- and the end, when the Gophers get Wisconsin twice in the span of three games. Once again, Minnesota will have plenty of opportunities to pull signature wins on the road, and the Gophers will need to perform better away from the Barn if they hope to improve on last year's NIT title.
My prediction: The Gophers go 10-2 (assuming they find some good competition in New York) in the non-conference schedule, and then start out the Big Ten slate slow but gain steam. Minnesota still struggles at times but the road, but behind a veteran-laden lineup, finishes 11-7, ties for fifth in the conference and slides into the NCAA tournament.