The Gophers women's basketball team plays an exhibition game Sunday and starts its real season in less than two weeks.

So it's not really fair to be thinking ahead to the 2022-23 season when this one is just about to start.

That said, this is college sports — where recruiting is the lifeblood of programs and dominates headlines, all while running concurrently with seasons.

It's OK to think about the present and the future at the same time. In the here and now, Lindsay Whalen's fourth season as head coach could bring a return to the NCAA tournament with 12 players coming back from a team that finished better than it started in last year's pandemic season.

A year from now, things could get even better. That's because Minnesota's incoming recruiting class of 2022 is loaded — good enough as of now to be ranked No. 7 nationally by ESPN, something I talked about on Wednesday's Daily Delivery podcast.

The Gophers might slide down a bit on the final list once signing day arrives because some blue chip prospects have not yet made their commitments to other programs.

But Minnesota will still be very high in the rankings — as high as I can remember a Gophers basketball (men's or women's) or football team being in these types of rankings. The only comparison that springs to mind is the Gophers men's class of 2009 that included Royce White, Rodney Williams and transfer Trevor Mbakwe.

It's justified based on three players in the top 55: guards Mara Braun (28) and Amaya Battle (38) and forward Mallory Heyer (54). All three players are from Minnesota, which bodes well for Whalen winning future in-state recruiting battles as well.

At No. 7, it should be noted that the Gophers have the highest-ranked class in the Big Ten. They are only three spots below UConn and two spots below defending NCAA champion Stanford.

Whether the Gophers can transform potential into sustained progress remains to be seen, but it does appear Whalen has the program headed in the right direction.