If we were to split the season into five pieces, the Gophers would be heading into the third stage.

First is the early-season slate, highlighted by a road trip to Richmond. Then, the Maui Invitational, a beast on it's own, with three games in three days. Later will be the Big Ten schedule, and eventually a postseason of sorts if the Gophers find themselves in position for one.

But now, with the tropical island behind them, the Gophers find themselves in the pre-conference, pre-Christmas grind.

They're tired from the challenges behind; they're looking to the tests ahead.

It would be easy to want to set the forward motion on cruise control until the Big Ten opener -- Michigan at home. But the Gophers have plenty to improve upon, as they showed in Maui, and the December slate isn't exactly full of cupcakes, starting with an extremely challenging game against Florida State on Tuesday and including an always-threatning South Dakota State.

Minnesota looked strong early and looked much shakier in the Aloha State. Can they balance out and give us a true idea of just who this team is before the conference competition begins? There are still many questions revolving around the Gophers.

Among them:

How capable is the frontcourt with Mo Walker back in the fold? This aspect of the team has been a major theme throughout the year, and it isn't going away anytime soon. We are just getting our first glimpses of Walker since the exhibition games, and it's tough to make any judgment yet of just how quickly he can become a productive member of the frontcourt again. He looked rusty in his first game back, against Arkansas, and he shook off some of that against Chaminade, but it's hard to draw too much from play against a DII team. In general, in the Maui Invitational, the Gophers' frontcourt looked to be struggling with everything we expected they would: interior defense, scoring in the paint and overall toughness and size.

What will the rotation be? Coach Richard Pitino has toyed with his core group of guys a little bit, playing a very short bench against Syracuse (only Joey King and Malik Smith). Will the coach stick with something that more closely resembles that construction (plus, of course, Mo Walker, now that he's available) or will he continue to bring in guys like Wally Ellenson and Maverick Ahanmisi?

Can the Gophers be a consistently good shooting team? It's one thing to nail three-pointers against sub-par competition or when the pressure is off. It's another to do it on the regular. When a team can regularly rely on their outside shot if other things aren't working, that's when it becomes a strength. The Gophers have showed a lot of promise, shooting 52.2 percent from the field in the first half of the Syracuse game, and 65.2 percent in the first half of the Arkansas game. The other four halves Minnesota has managed to connect on just 47 of 129 attempts, or 36.4 percent.

Will Andre Hollins be the team's leader night-in and night-out? Pitino maintains that he's not worried -- and it's certainly not time to be -- but the junior guard kind of disappeared at times in Maui, when the team needed him as much as ever. Hollins averaged 11 points, three rebounds and one assist through the tournament -- certainly not shabby, but not the same dominant we've been seeing from him for most of the year.

How far does the defense have to go? The press has looked great; the press has looked worthless. The 2-3 zone has looked strong; the 2-3 zone has looked powerless to stop anyone. To Pitino's credit, he has been quick to make adjustments when they're needed. But his new trapping system takes some time to get used to. Just how far along are the Gophers in achieving their defensive goals?

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