Last year, her team was undefeated, ranked and rolling.
But Lindsay Whalen's Gophers women's basketball team entered Big Ten Conference play and got a reality check. After an opening victory over Wisconsin, the Gophers lost seven of their next eight games.
Whalen is determined not to let that happen again.
The 11-1 Gophers open conference play Saturday at Penn State (6-5), the first of 18 straight games against teams in one of the deepest conferences in the country — according to some RPI rankings the second-toughest conference. And Whalen is hoping what she learned last season while climbing out of that 2-7 hole can be applied this time around.
"We want everything to go up," Whalen said. "Attention to detail, focus as a team. Last year we were undefeated, then we got to the Big Ten and it hit us like a wave. Now I've gone through it once. I didn't like the start we had last year, so I'm trying to do some things differently."
Since finals ended and until school resumes in late January, Whalen has given all her players individual challenges, areas in their game to improve. Players are given time either before or after team practice to work with assistant coaches on those goals.
And Whalen is giving her experienced players a lot of responsibilities. This week the Gophers went to Happy Valley on Thursday, got a practice in, and had a team dinner. At that dinner, Whalen had the captains address the team about what to expect in conference games.
There are reasons for optimism, but also legitimate concerns.
• The return of Gadiva Hubbard, who missed last season with an injury, and the improvement of Jasmine Brunson appear to have made up for the loss of Kenisha Bell, last season's leading scorer. Brunson has done a good job of running the offense at the point and Hubbard is shooting 42.6% on three-pointers.
• The team's personnel is better suited to the small-ball lineup Whalen went to after that 2-7 start, a change that spurred a 7-2 finish in conference play. Last season, that lineup really had only two legitimate three-point threats in Destiny Pitts and Irene Garrido Perez. This season, the Gophers have three starters — Pitts, Hubbard and freshman Sara Scalia — who are shooting better than 40% on three-pointers, which has created space in the paint for forward Taiye Bello.
• Bello has continued to improve. One of the best rebounders in the country — her 380 rebounds last season were the seventh-most in conference history — Bello has raised her scoring this year. She has double-doubles in six of 11 games and is one of only 28 players in the country averaging a double-double.
• The team is deeper, particularly at guard, with freshman Jasmine Powell leading the way.
But there are things Whalen needs to learn about her team.
Who will be the crunchtime go-to player? It was Bell last season. This season, Whalen is looking for Pitts and Hubbard. For all the depth at guard, the Gophers are relatively thin in the post, which means Bello will have to produce and stay out of foul trouble. Rebounding and ball security will be very important.
And, of course, Whalen will see how a team with as many as three freshmen in the eight-player rotation, will adjust to conference play.
"It is a step up," Whalen said. "A big step up. We're trying to make sure we set the tone from the start in that area."
The Big Ten doesn't have a top-10 team in the most recent AP Top 25. But Maryland, Indiana and Michigan are ranked, and five of the conference's other 11 teams received votes, including the Gophers.
"Every night, you're going against a great coach," Whalen said. "There are several Hall of Famers in our conference. They make you pay for every mistake. Everything we do as coaches has to go up, too."
Carolyn Kieger — a Roseville native and former coach at Marquette — is Penn State's first-year coach. She and Whalen played against each other in AAU ball growing up. This will be their first time meeting as coaches.
"It's going to be a battle," Whalen said. "But it's also going to be fun.''