In a way, it almost feels like the week after Christmas for the Gophers.
For a few months now, we've been looking ahead to that one big stretch on the nonconference schedule. We've been anticipating each game like an unopened present (unsure whether it would be something shiny and new or whether it would be coal) and hypothesizing about just how the gift spread would go.
Now, a week later, the Gophers have shredded the wrapping paper to reveal three good wins in four tough games away from Williams Arena. (OK, so they didn't get the new car, but they got the golf clubs and the flat-screen TV.)
But while it's tempting to sit back and gorge on the holiday buffet, the Gophers still have plenty to improve in on the remainder of the nonconference slate -- so they can keep partying hardy through New Year's. Here are three things the Gophers need to accomplish over the next five games:
• Sweep: These are all games they should win. Still, there are a couple of notable challenges. After North Florida on Saturday (should be a double-digits win), the Gophers have a good two-game stretch next week with South Dakota State at home and then Southern California on the road.
The Jackrabbits have plenty of talent, including Minnesota native Nate Wolters, on a squad that has gone 5-2 with two very close slips to Alabama and Hofstra.
USC, meanwhile, has lost some tough games (Illinois, Marquette, San Diego State), but the transfer-heavy Trojans (3-3) are no pushovers either, especially at home. The Gophers have traveled a lot, but they will have to keep up their energy to avoid any December sluggishness.
• Figure out the rotation: Is coach Tubby Smith going to go with the same starting five -- Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins, Rodney Williams and Elliott Eliason -- through Big Ten play? If not, it wouldn't hurt to get a few trial games in with a future group -- possibly including Trevor Mbakwe -- so chemistry can be smoothed out by the time the Gophers open against Michigan State on New Year's Eve.
Do the Gophers want to stick with a bigger or small lineup for the most part? Who are the core reserves and how deep should the bench typically go to find the ideal intersection between freshness and continuity? These are the questions that need to be answered. Right now, there are two Gophers lineups that stand out: Hollins, Hollins, Williams and Mbakwe with Coleman or those four with Eliason.
• For goodness' sake, take care of the ball: Ever since the Gophers' season opener against American (when they had a season low of eight turnovers), Minnesota has turned over the ball at an alarming rate in almost every game -- with at least 15 giveaways in every game except Tuesday at Florida State. Tuesday in Tallahassee was an improvement in that the Gophers had only 12 against a pretty good team.
Against weaker competition, the Gophers will need to keep up the trend and continue to cut their turnovers heading into conference play.
• Wally Ellenson recently had his cast taken off his left hand -- which he broke before the season started -- Gophers coach Tubby Smith said.
"He still has some protection on his hand, and the doctors want to make sure he's completely healed," Smith said.
The freshman has been participating in the team's shooting drills but hasn't been in any contact situations. Smith said the team would evaluate Ellenson's progress in the coming week or so before deciding whether the guard would redshirt.
The Gophers already have decided to redshirt forward Charles Buggs, their other freshman.