The only thing Big Ten men’s basketball coaches knew a week from the start of the season was that their league was going to be loaded.
The strength of the Big Ten was evident to this point. Not until Wednesday afternoon, though, did anyone find out their league schedules because of a delay during the pandemic.
And, boy, did Richard Pitino’s team get a gantlet to open Big Ten play.
The Gophers open the Big Ten season at Illinois on Dec. 15. And they play their conference home opener against Iowa on Dec. 25. The grueling first eight league games of a 20-game slate are against Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan. They play the Hawkeyes and the Wolverines twice each in that span.
Iowa (No. 5 in the Associated Press preseason poll), Wisconsin (No. 7) and Illinois (No. 8) are the consensus top three Big Ten title contenders, with Michigan State (13), Ohio State (23) and Michigan (25) among a handful of other programs in the mix ranked in the Top 25 behind them.
The Gophers play Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Penn State and Northwestern only once this season. The lone border battle game against the Badgers is on New Year’s Eve in Madison.
Many Big Ten programs waited for the conference schedule announcement to release their own nonconference schedules Wednesday, including the Gophers.
Big Ten teams are only allowed to play up to seven nonconference games.
The initial challenge that Pitino and his peers face will be figuring out how many games they can actually play in the next month before the Big Ten schedule resumes in January. The Gophers recently returned from a five-day pause after some players tested positive for COVID-19.
“We are planning to play the seven,” Pitino said Tuesday, “but with the understanding that anything can happen.”
What was already known is that Pitino’s eighth season opens next Wednesday against Wisconsin-Green Bay at Williams Arena. The seven-game nonconference slate isn’t complete, though. Eastern Washington backed out of the multiple-team event with the Gophers and Loyola Marymount from Nov. 28-30 at the Barn, according to sources.
LMU is still scheduled to play in Minnesota, but the Gophers are seeking another opponent. Another possibility is for the Gophers to play LMU twice if the NCAA accepts a waiver.
The Gophers play four nonleague home games next month: North Dakota (Dec. 4), Boston College (Dec. 8), Missouri-Kansas City (Dec. 10) and Saint Louis (Dec. 20).
Higher-profile matchups in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Connecticut and against Mississippi State at the Barn had to be canceled over travel concerns during a virus crisis. The home-and-home series with the Bulldogs was moved to the 2021-22 season.
“It’s totally going to be a different nonconference than it’s ever been,” Pitino said. “But we would like to be able to do it.”
According to the Big Ten’s schedule release, the conference’s 14 men’s basketball programs will be expected to follow the same protocols developed earlier in the fall, which include daily COVID-19 antigen testing, cardiac screening and analyzing coronavirus data daily going into practices and games.