The schedule was just one of the challenges this season's Gophers women's basketball team faced as Big Ten Conference play began.
The Gophers, 1-4 overall, have lost four in a row, including their first three conference games by an average of 21 points to Michigan State, Northwestern and Indiana. Those three teams, all ranked in the AP Top 25, boast a combined 7-1 record in conference play, and two of the teams — Indiana and Michigan State — are tied for the Big Ten lead.
But now the schedule might have given the Gophers a break. Finals week and an early conference bye means coach Lindsay Whalen's team has played only one game since a Dec. 14 loss to Northwestern. The team has had time to rest and, more important, to practice.
And now the Gophers will play at Wisconsin on Sunday in a game between two teams winless in conference play. The Badgers lost by 43 points at Michigan on New Year's Eve.
Nothing is guaranteed. Wisconsin's big lineup will be a test. And the Gophers, prone to slow starts and midgame lapses, have struggled just to be in games the past month or so.
"Everyone's clawing to get a Big Ten Conference win," Whalen said.
But games against three of the top Big Ten teams have shown Whalen what needs work: defensive intensity. Getting post players to defend without getting into foul trouble. Ball movement on offense
A long string of full-team practices has been spent working on those things.
"We have been working on the small details during our break,'' said post player Kayla Mershon, who made her Gophers debut Dec. 23 during a 21-point loss to Indiana after being deemed eligible by both the NCAA and Big Ten. "We've been working on ourselves. Now we have to carry that over from practice to the games."
Whalen has also been considering a new lineup. And while during Friday's Zoom conference call she said she hadn't made any final decisions, there is one move she's committed to: playing Kadi Sissoko almost exclusively at the big forward position. Up to now, Sissoko has alternated between the two forward positions. At the 4 (power forward), Whalen said Sissoko has been the team's best player in practice over the past week.
"I think she has more freedom on the offensive end there. I'm going to stick with that," Whalen said. "I think she'd say that's where she's most comfortable. We needed to pick a place for her and let her focus on that."
That, plus the steady return to health by Sara Scalia and Laura Bagwell-Katalinich, should help a Gophers team that has worked to stay positive during the 0-4 streak.
"The intensity has gotten better,'' Bagwell-Katalinich said. "We're more comfortable with each other. We had a lot of new faces, and with Kayla getting cleared, we finally have everyone together.''
The team got off to a strong start against Indiana before a midgame lapse. But Whalen, encouraged by the team's recent work, said her team is improving.
"We have 17 of 22 games this season after New Year's,'' she said. "It's time to play, time to get out there and experience some success."