Have the Gophers played the toughest schedule in the Big Ten through the first few weeks of the college basketball season?

The answer is definitely "No.”

Michigan State lost to Arizona and Kentucky, still plays Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Indiana beat Kansas and has North Carolina coming up (losing to Fort Wayne really hurt). Purdue lost to defending national champion Villanova and faces Louisville next week. Wisconsin lost to Creighton and still has North Carolina and Syracuse on the schedule.

Minnesota won’t play any heavy-hitters in nonconference, but it has stayed undefeated at 5-0 against a few teams with high Rating Percentage Index (RPI) rankings. That’s why the Gophers entered Wednesday with a No. 16 RPI, tops among Big Ten teams. It's early, yes, but still a great sign.

Victories against St. John’s (No. 31) and Arkansas (No. 32) were impressive without RPI having anything to do with them. They were the first two major conference opponents on the schedule this year. But looking at it differently, Minnesota got two wins against RPI top-50 teams added to the resume.

One win that didn’t seem it would help much based on name recognition was Mount St. Mary’s, but that gave the Gophers a top-100 RPI victory (MSM was No. 67).

Surprisingly, what appeared to be a quality win against Texas-Arlington ended up hurting Minnesota’s RPI since the Mavericks were rated No. 148 at the time. Beating 241st ranked Louisiana-Lafayette in the opener didn’t do the Gophers any favors, either.

If Richard Pitino’s team keeps winning there will be teams such as Southern Illinois (184), Vanderbilt (278), New Jersey Institute of Technology (304) and Georgia Southern (233) that won’t boost Minnesota’s RPI. Losing to any of those programs would be a bad loss in terms of numbers.

There are other games with Florida State (81), Northern Illinois (45) and Arkansas State (76) that could keep the Gophers’ RPI in good shape going into Big Ten play. Even a couple losses to the teams mentioned here wouldn’t be devastating.

What does this all mean? Well, if the Gophers can avoid any bad RPI losses the rest of nonconference play, they might be able to play their way into a possible NCAA tournament bid with a 9-9 or 8-10 record in the Big Ten. I know that's way down the line. But Tubby Smith went 8-10 and made the program's last trip to the NCAAs in 2012-13. A signature win against No. 1 Indiana and a decent RPI helped.

Regardless where the Gophers go from here, it’s amazing what a difference a year makes.

RPI rankings in Big Ten (Source: ESPN)

  1. Gophers 16
  2. Michigan 30
  3. Rutgers 35
  4. Northwestern 50
  5. Indiana 54
  6. Purdue 62
  7. Ohio State 73
  8. Wisconsin 94
  9. Maryland 132
  10. Nebraska 147
  11. Michigan State 153
  12. Illinois 177
  13. Penn State 191
  14. Iowa 254