Speaking at the Gophers women's basketball team's media day Thursday, coach Pam Borton started rattling off a list of the team's nonconference opponents this season. When it was done, she half-jokingly mused at the gauntlet ahead.
"I'm not sure why we put ourselves in that situation," Borton said, drawing some laughs.
Borton considers it one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the Big Ten, and it's hard to argue. Among the foes: Arkansas, South Florida, Wake Forest and potential No. 1 Baylor. Minnesota faces Arkansas in its regular-season opener Nov. 11 at a tournament in Florida.
But Borton, whose teams are 10-24 in regular-season Big Ten games over the past two years, believes she has bigger, quicker and more athletic players who will allow the Gophers to compete throughout the season in ways other recent teams could not.
"I have a team I'll take to battle every day," Borton said. "I'm really excited about where we're heading."
Fueling her optimism is freshman point guard Rachel Banham, whose impact could have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the roster.
"It's comforting for me as a head coach to have a player like that on the court. ... She has a great feel for the game," Borton said of the two-time Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year from Lakeville North. "I think we'll have better guard play than we've had in a few years here."
Count senior Kiara Buford -- a natural scorer miscast as a point guard out of necessity at times last season -- among those excited to have Banham on board.
"For her to be a threat is going to help a lot," Buford said. "I love to play the wing. It's my natural position, and I love to run the floor."
Borton noted the potential for a carryover effect from the WNBA champion Lynx to the Gophers women's program in terms of fan interest. The Gophers drew huge crowds back in their Final Four season of 2003-04 with Lindsay Whalen, and she helped propel the Lynx to similar heights. "We'd like to give our fans the same excitement this winter," Borton said.