More than half of the Gophers men’s basketball team has never played in the Big Ten, but those newcomers will face a tough early test in league play this season.

The Big Ten released its 2019-20 schedule Friday with the Gophers opening early conference games vs. Iowa on Dec. 9 and vs. Ohio State at Williams Arena on Dec. 15.

This is the third straight year the Big Ten has played games in early December, which hasn’t gone well for Richard Pitino’s team on the road. Minnesota is 0-3 away from the Barn and 3-0 at home in those games.

Pitino needs his seven newcomers to be ready for a challenging December this season.

The month starts with four consecutive games vs. major conference opponents. The Gophers play in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge hosting Clemson on Dec. 2. They travel a week later to begin Big Ten play at Iowa on Dec. 9. The U's conference home opener vs. Ohio State on Dec. 15 is followed with a neutral site matchup vs. Oklahoma State in Tulsa on Dec. 21.

Complete U men's basketball conference schedule

That grueling stretch could end up being an early indicator of whether the Gophers are in contention to make the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. A top-40 recruiting class and transfers Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and Alihan Demir will try to help Pitino replace stars Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey.

Last season, the Gophers jumped to a 5-0 start, including victories vs. Utah, Texas A&M, Washington and Oklahoma State. That gave them confidence to bounce back from a humbling 20-point road loss at Ohio State to finish early Big Ten play last year by winning at home vs. Nebraska in December.

After nonconference play this year, the Gophers resume the Big Ten schedule January 2020 with four of their first seven games on the road, including Jan. 2 at Purdue, Jan. 9 at Michigan State and Jan. 23 at Ohio State.  

From late January to mid-February, Pitino will need fans to pack the Barn for big home games vs. Michigan State on Jan. 25 and against rivals Wisconsin on Feb. 5 and Iowa on Feb. 16. The second of back-to-back home games will be vs. Indiana on Jan. 19.

Road games also mark the end of Big Ten play. The Gophers play three of their final five regular season games away from home vs. Northwestern on Feb. 23 and back-to-back games at Wisconsin on March 1 and at Indiana on March 4. The Big Ten tournament is set for March 11-15 in Indianapolis.

No Saturday home games

The Gophers are the only Big Ten team with no Saturday home games in league play. Going back more than 20 years, I haven't found a Big Ten schedule with zero home games on Saturday. Interesting scheduling by the league this season, giving the Gophers five Sunday home games instead -- most for any team in the conference. 

Penn State is the only Big Ten team with zero conference home games on Sunday this season. But the Nittany Lions have four Saturday home games and one game at the Palestra in Philadelphia, which essentially will feel like a home game with fans coming from State College. 

What does this mean for Minnesota? Well, Pitino was 3-0 with Saturday home games in the Big Ten last year, but the Gophers are actually 9-9 in the last six seasons in league play at the Barn on Saturday. This mainly makes it tougher for fans to see them at home in the Big Ten on the weekend.