What is the correct formula?
Which is the best arrangement of teams to ensure success when it matters – how do you balance strong competition with rest and not getting overworked?
And whatever constitutes an adequate schedule, have the Gophers achieved it?
With the non-conference slate in the rearview and the Big Ten season –starting with Michigan at Williams Arena on Thursday -- just days away, is Minnesota prepared?
Obviously new coach Richard Pitino inherited the 2013-14 schedule, but though he didn’t have much to do with its set-up, he feels like it has provided some early lessons, which will be meaningful going forward.
“I think about it a lot,” he said. “We'll talk about the Syracuse game. I thought we played really, really well. We were shorthanded in the frontcourt and they're one of the biggest teams in the country. I thought we had a great win at Richmond, to finish on a 19-0 run, hold them without a basket for seven, eight minutes, is something we'll reference a lot. We'll certainly reference some of the mistakes we made against Arkansas.
“Overall, I thought we had a really good non-conference. It's tough sometimes to get up for every single opponent. I think our guys, if you look back over the last 13 games, they didn't lay an egg mentally, which you see it a lot in college basketball. So now we kind of close that chapter -- we learned from it and now we move on to the Big Ten.”
True that the Gophers didn’t “lay an egg” over the final portion of the non-conference schedule, but they also weren’t challenged much. After facing Richmond on the road, Syracuse and Arkansas on a neutral court in Maui and Florida State at home all within the first nine games, Minnesota was handed four cupcakes to complete November, not to mention the Coastal Carolinas and the Woffords that the Gophers instigated the season with. By losing the first two games in Maui, Minnesota missed a chance to play another quality opponent as well, winding up in the last place game against Division II Chaminade.
“A tougher schedule would have been cool, but it doesn't matter, we just come to play,” DeAndre Mathieu said.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is warding off boredom down that final stretch of non-name opponents; staying motivated toward bettering the team rather than becoming complacent because of easy wins.
“I always want to play the best -- I play my best when I play against some of the better players, better teams,” Andre Hollins said. “Still, I've got to come out every game like Texas [A&M] Corpus Christi is Michigan State, is Kentucky. We need to play like they're them. That's the mentality.
“That's one of the toughest things to do -- you see North Carolina, they come out and beat Michigan State and they beat Louisville and they come out and lose to Belmont and UAB. So it's the mentality -- it's easy to get up for the big games, it's hard to get up for playing a Texas [A&M] Corpus Christi, and the lower division level. So that makes you better, I think that makes you more mentally tough.”
Then again, maybe none of this really matters. By this point, the Gophers’ veterans have figured out that the non-conference accolades and struggles don’t mean much after the New Year.
“At the end of the day, I've got to say, you just cannot prepare yourself for the Big Ten until you play in it,” Elliott Eliason said. “And a lot of these guys haven't had any experience in the Big Ten, and myself obviously limited experience.”
Those new to the experience will find out soon, said Austin Hollins, one of the players charged with getting the “newbies” mentally prepared.
“Conference play, it's just a different mindset,” Hollins said. “You can't really explain -- when you get out there, the physicality level is different, the competition is different. Night in and night out, any team can beat any team. It doesn't matter what they did in non-conference play. It's a tough schedule and it's a grind, but everybody is getting beat up in the Big Ten -- it's not just us and it's not just them, so you've got to fight through that.
“It's a new season. But we're going to prepare and I think we'll be ready come Thursday.”