The Gophers’ path to a 2018 Big Ten men’s basketball title starts smooth but ends with what could be a grueling stretch.

In his fifth season, coach Richard Pitino has a team projected to compete with favorite Michigan State for the top spot. The Gophers, who won 24 games and reached the NCAA tournament last year, will play four of their first six Big Ten games at Williams Arena, hosting Rutgers on Dec. 3 to open conference play on the scheduled released Wednesday.

A season ago, Minnesota had its toughest stretch to begin Big Ten play, with four of the first six games on the road. This coming season will be flipped, with a potentially nasty February slate: Feb. 3 at Michigan, Feb. 9 at Indiana, Feb. 13 vs. Michigan State, Feb. 19 at Wisconsin, Feb. 21 vs. Iowa and Feb. 25 at Purdue.

The Gophers play both rival Wisconsin (away) and the Spartans (home) only once, however.

Each Big Ten team will play two games in the first week of December. This change in scheduling was a result of the conference tournament moving up to run Feb. 28 through March 3 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Women’s highlights

The Gophers women’s basketball team will play three teams from the ACC in an 11-day stretch in November, face coach Marlene Stollings’ former team, VCU, and will ring out the old year with a Dec. 31 Big Ten home opener against Nebraska.

Later, a 10-day, four-game homestand could make or break their season: Penn State (Feb. 11), Michigan (Feb. 14), Maryland (Feb. 18) and Indiana (Feb. 20).