When Minnesota coach Richard Pitino starts to look back on this year's schedule, he notices one glaring difference: the lack of ranked teams in Williams Arena.
At this point of the season, Minnesota has hosted just one -- No. 22 Ohio State, which brought the Gophers a loss way back on Jan. 6. Correspondingly, Minnesota doesn't have a single ranked win this year. Of course, there is another opportunity on deck: the stronger-than-ever Wisconsin, which comes to the Barn next week.
A year ago tomorrow, the Gophers would be beating their third ranked opponent at home -- No.20 Iowa. Those three teams -- including Ohio State and Wisconsin -- were the only ranked teams that stepped in Williams Arena, but Minnesota also hosted an unranked Michigan team in the season opener (the Gophers narrowly lost) that wound up making it to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.
"One of the things we haven't really gotten the benefit of -- we played three top-20 teams in our building," Pitino said of last season. "All of our top-20 teams ... have been on the road."
True, but that's also only included two teams -- No. 12 Maryland on Jan. 3 and No. 5 Wisconsin last Saturday. Michigan State is on the verge, but won't be by Thursday, when Minnesota comes to town.
Partly due to the Big Ten's new scheduling format and partly due to the conference's overall weak year, the Gophers simply haven't played as many ranked teams as usual. Considering Minnesota's currently situation -- no signature wins and a weakening chance it will make even the NIT -- the Gophers could have potentially benefitted from a few more opportunities.
After the addition of Rutgers and Maryland this season, the Big Ten began assigning each team eight league opponents which they would only play once in a given season -- four 'home onlys'; four 'away onlys.' That's up from just two 'home onlys' and two 'away onlys,' and four 'play once' opponents previously.
Some coaches say that's changed how the league standings -- as quirky as ever this year -- have fallen.
"It’s so hard to get a handle of where everybody is right now," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said regarding the new format on last week's coaches teleconference. "And it’s going to take a few years – it’s not necessarily a negative as far as what’s going to better our conference for the future, but I think it’s a problem now in that fans can’t get a handle on where everybody is, media can’t get a handle, honestly as a coach I can’t get a handle sometimes.
"I look at who’s got the same record as you yet who did they play – did they play them on the road, did they play them at home."
The Big Ten's power structure will always be unpredictable, but next year -- the league announced matchups for next season last week -- should bring some additional chances for Minnesota.
Wisconsin and Maryland, the only two conference teams currently ranked, are both 'home onlys'. Michigan State -- which received 56 votes in this week's poll -- is too. And a Purdue team that is currently tied for second place in the league standings, rounds out that grouping.
Matchups on the road (both 'away onlys' and 'home-and-aways') include beatable teams Northwestern, Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska, as well as Iowa, whom the Gophers topped on Feb. 12.
Take a look, again, at the full matchup breakdown:
Home: Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Away: Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State
Home/Away: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Rutgers
"I don't think there is necessarily a perfect fit when we have the amount of teams that we do," Pitino said. "...Certainly the Big Ten does the best they possibly can. What you realize is it's a marathon. We started three of four on the road and then we start 0-5 in conference. You've got to weather the storm a little bit just because of that unbalanced schedule and certainly stay the course. Hopefully in the end, it all evens out."