The Gophers basketball team will face what likely will be the toughest early season test of Richard Pitino's coaching tenure during a grueling stretch in November and early December. Minnesota's nonconference schedule was released Thursday, and the five games between the Nov. 6 season opener and Dec. 2 Big Ten opener will signal whether the Gophers are ready to bounce back from a disappointing season.
And there could be one more game to come in that tough month. While full team schedules were released Thursday, there is a possibility Minnesota could add another game.
Two Gophers home games that were part of an agreement to play in the Vancouver Showcase were not agreed upon this summer as expected. Minnesota scrambled to add one home game in time for the schedule release, and a second game might be added soon. However, sources told the Star Tribune the game might not be at home.
Minnesota could end up playing an extra game in Vancouver during their long-scheduled Nov. 18-20 Vancouver Showcase trip. The Gophers play Texas A&M (Nov. 18) and either Washington or Santa Clara (Nov. 20), and a third game could be added Nov. 21.
"We're trying to make it right for everybody," Vancouver Showcase spokesman Jon Albaugh said. "We're coming up with solutions that can meet everybody's objectives."
Potentially losing a home game would be a financial hit for the Gophers, and losing a lower-conference opponent off the schedule would likely mean one fewer victory to count on the team résumé come tournament selection time in March. The first added home game became the U's season opener: Nov. 6 against Nebraska Omaha at Williams Arena.
Division I teams are allowed either a maximum of 29 regular-season games, or 27 regular-season games plus up to four bonus games if they participate in a multi-team event. MTEs are typically preseason tournaments or showcases, such as November's Vancouver Showcase or last season's Barclays Center Classic. Minnesota currently has 30 games scheduled, including a 20-game Big Ten schedule; it's allowed to have 31.
Scheduling and the team's résumé will be far from Pitino's mind in November, however. Following the opener against Omaha, the Gophers embark on a seven-game stretch that features five games away from home and at least six major conference opponents: Utah, Texas A&M, Boston College, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Nebraska — and Washington could make it six in the Vancouver Showcase.
"We set up our schedule this season to provide a challenging test for our team as they get ready for Big Ten play," Pitino said in a statement. "We're excited to have five Power Five opponents in our nonconference, including the Utah game at home. With a 20-game Big Ten schedule this year, I think our team will have a chance to get better early in the season."
The first sign of whether the Gophers can turn things around after a 15-17 record last season will be a home game against the Utes on Nov. 12. Utah won 23 games last season and advanced to the NIT title game. The U's first challenge against an NCAA tournament team will be Texas A&M in Vancouver; the Aggies went 22-13 and reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years. And the Gophers could play Washington, a Pac-12 contender, two nights later.
The last of the non-Big Ten early games against a Power Five opponent will be Nov. 30 when Minnesota faces Oklahoma State in the U.S. Bank Stadium Classic.