When Richard Pitino put the Gophers basketball schedule together for the 2019-20 season, one of the most important factors was a quality opponent for the fans to see them play at home in November.
Of course, everyone wanted Minnesota to play blue bloods such as Kansas, Duke or Kentucky, but those teams weren’t realistic choices for this.
The opponent Pitino eventually scheduled is tough enough.
DePaul (7-0) comes to play the Gophers (3-3) not intimidated at all, having already beaten Iowa and Boston College on the road. The Blue Demons aren’t ranked, but they are the most improved team in the Big East. They look like an NCAA tournament-caliber squad.
“This is a very, very important game for us,” Pitino said. “It’s a game that I have intentionally added, a Power Six opponent in this building for our fans. Obviously, it’s great for our program as well.”
The question the Gophers have yet to answer this season is this: Can they beat a high-major opponent?
In three consecutive losses against Oklahoma, Butler and Utah away from home, Pitino’s newcomer-laden team wasn’t ready to tackle the toughest slate in his tenure. But the Gophers at least challenged themselves.
Looking around the Big Ten, Maryland, Indiana, Rutgers and Nebraska won’t play a high-major opponent before Thanksgiving. Iowa, Illinois and Purdue were a combined 1-4 against Power Six opponents through Thursday’s games. The only Big Ten team to play more high-major opponents than the Gophers this season is Michigan State, which went 3-2.
The combined record of Oklahoma, Butler and Utah is 17-3. The record of the three high-major opponents (DePaul, Clemson and Oklahoma State) still remaining on Minnesota’s schedule is 18-2.
Eight high-major foes in November and December for the Gophers, including the next five games, means no soft spot in the schedule. But Minnesota’s players have embraced it.
“That shows we’re not scared of anybody and we’re ready to challenge ourselves this early,” sophomore center Daniel Oturu said. “Obviously, you want to come out with wins in those matchups. But at the end of the day, if you lose, you’ve got to take what you can from those losses and move on. I think that’s a really big key for us. I feel like those lessons we learned from those three games can help us moving forward and be a really good team.”
With seven newcomers, including three new starters, the Gophers are still figuring out how to play well together and establish an identity.
Minnesota leads the Big Ten in three-pointers made per game (10.3), but it also wants to play inside-out through Oturu, who is averaging 16.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks.
The Gophers beat Central Michigan 82-57 on Nov. 21, with guards supplying 12 of 14 made three-pointers. They followed that up with a 79-56 victory over North Dakota on Sunday behind a big lift from their bench.
Bench support was nonexistent in losses to Oklahoma and Butler (outscored 35-4), but that improved with a combined 51 bench points in the past three games.
Sophomore Jarvis Omersa had a career-high 11 points and nine rebounds with Oturu in foul trouble vs. North Dakota. Frontcourt depth also had been an issue.
“With all the hype and all the energy I can bring, I try to get things rolling,” Omersa said. “Make us play a little faster. Speed teams up.”
How will the Gophers respond when the level of competition rises again significantly against a hot Blue Demons squad?
“It’s going to be important that our confidence is high,” said sophomore Gabe Kalscheur, who had 18 points vs. North Dakota. “It’s going to be big [Friday]. We’re going to need everyone there supporting us. They’re a really good team.”