Richard Pitino won't be sending any Christmas cards to the Big Ten this holiday season.
Not with the conference giving his Gophers men's basketball team arguably the toughest early schedule of any team in the league.
In their first eight conference games, the 6-0 Gophers face six of the seven Big Ten teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, including Iowa and Michigan twice in that span.
"It's a huge challenge for us," Pitino said of maybe the most difficult stretch he's faced to begin the Big Ten season in his eight years coaching the program.
It starts Tuesday night at No. 13 Illinois, which is led by All-America candidates Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. The Illini (4-2), who won at Duke last week, were favored by media in the preseason to win the Big Ten, arguably the best conference in college basketball.
"They've got a great identity of toughness," Pitino said. "They're physical. They've got great weapons and they're well-coached. So, there's a reason why people picked them to be on top of the Big Ten."
Illinois starts Minnesota's gantlet but might not be the best early opponent. No. 3-ranked Iowa comes to Minneapolis on Christmas Day, followed by games against No. 4 Michigan State and at No. 12 Wisconsin to close out December.
The only Big Ten team playing their first eight league games against opponents currently ranked, the Gophers battle six different ranked teams in that stretch. Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, and Maryland are the only others in the Big Ten with a start close to as difficult, each with five different ranked foes in the first eight games.
The Gophers already had some close calls to stay undefeated, which included needing Marcus Carr's last-second three-pointer to beat Loyola Marymount, and erasing a 15-point deficit to escape in overtime against Boston College. In BC's next game, the Eagles lost by 38 points to Syracuse.
The Gophers' first five opponents (they played Loyola twice) are a combined 7-21 this season. Their next seven opponents are 35-3.
In the next nine games, the Gophers are projected to go 1-8 by advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy. They're favored only against Saint Louis at home Sunday. But even the Billikens, a potential NCAA tourney team from the Atlantic 10, won't be pushovers, having upset LSU on the road this year.
As if dealing with daily COVID-19 testing and trying to stay safe to play during the pandemic isn't challenging enough right now, Pitino has to hope his six new players (only Nebraska, with 11, has more in the Big Ten) can mesh fast enough with the returners to help the Gophers hold their own early and stay afloat for NCAA tournament aspirations.
"To me everything evens out if you're consistent with what it is that you're doing," Pitino said. "I think all these games are hard. But I also hope they think playing us is hard as well."
The Big Ten is arguably as deep as it has ever been, with the potential to get a record 10 NCAA tourney teams or more based on recent projections.
The Gophers are on the outside looking in on that group, not based on their record but mostly on the unknown. They returned only two starters and lost All-America center Daniel Oturu to the NBA after posting a 15-16 record last season.
The potential is there for the Gophers to contend, Big Ten Network analyst and former Illinois standout Stephen Bardo said after covering the U's 90-61 win against Missouri-Kansas City on Thursday.
"We're having the benefit of watching this Minnesota team early in the season," Bardo said.
"I'm not sure a lot of people have seen this team. They have as much potential to be disruptive in the Big Ten as any team I've seen early on."
A statement like that doesn't come without some proof. Carr, an All-Big Ten preseason selection, is an early candidate for conference player of the year. The junior guard is averaging 23.8 points, third in the Big Ten behind only Dosunmu (24.8) and reigning league MVP and Iowa big man Luka Garza (29.2).
Carr opened the season averaging 29.7 points in his first three games, but the Gophers have developed more balance in their past three wins. Seven-foot center Liam Robbins, a Drake transfer, overcame a slow start to the year and scored a season-high 27 points and five blocks against UMKC. Utah transfer Both Gach has been consistent, ranking second on the team in scoring (15.3), rebounds (6.2) and assists (3.8).
An ankle injury to starting forward and newcomer Brandon Johnson could hurt Pitino's depth; Johnson's status is day-to-day. The Gophers feel, though, they have the pieces when healthy to compete with anyone on their grueling schedule — something they can start to prove Tuesday night.
"I think we can be very difficult for other teams," junior guard Gabe Kalscheur said. "A lot of people don't talk about us. They talk about other teams. I feel like that's not fair to us … We're trying to make noise and put ourselves on the map again."