They are the Twin Cities' hardiest sports consumers. They are older now and getting to the Barn on those cold winter nights is more of a chore. The consistency of the entertainment has waned as the ticket prices have soared. They have been moved to corners, or up flights of stairs, as loyalty has lost all meaning to the University of Minnesota's athletic department.

And yet there still are thousands annually sending in the payment for long-held season tickets, waiting for the announcement of the non-conference schedule, and hoping against hope that this will be the year to get something resembling their money's worth in November and December.

These generational fans jumped on board with their parents, or with a favorite uncle, in the early '70s, when Bill Musselman changed everything and turned their families into lifers for Gophers basketball.

Musselman came crashing down, but things were fine with Jim Dutcher and the Barn was jumping for the next decade. Clem Haskins dug the Gophers out of a hole and became a hero to the masses. He crashed, too, and then Dan Monson was a disappointment, and Tubby Smith was a greater disappointment, and here we are ... hopeful again because a young man with a famous name is now in charge.

There are 20, 25 years worth of ticket buyers who are trained to expect nothing from the non-conference schedule in Williams Arena -- trained to pay high prices for absurd matchups for two months, while waiting for the Big Ten schedule to start.

But the extra-longtimers, the ones brought in by Musselman, or in the early years of Dutcher ... they remember Marquette coming to Williams Arena and the joint rocking like it was Indiana. They remember when 60-65 percent of the home schedule was conference games, and two or three of the non-conference games were worth parking blocks away and trudging over snow and ice to get to the Barn.

Those schedules in modern times? Old ticket buyers, young ones, in-between ... all of 'em are getting ripped off. .

Rich Pitino's first non-conference schedule  was announced on Tuesday and, with slight improvement, the home portion could have been lousy.

The basics of the schedule were identical to the Tubby Smith Era:

Play the quality opponents in a late-November tournament in an exotic location. Then, line up the yawners, one after another, in Williams Arena in a December run-up to the conference season.

The visit to the Maui Classic was arranged before Tubby was fired and Pitino was hired. The first of three way out there in paradise will be against Syracuse on Nov. 25.

Fine matchup -- except a matchup in Maui doesn't do diddly for people putting Gophers' season tickets on their Visa cards.

This was the home non-conference schedule presented to the public on Tueday:

Nov. 8--Lehigh. Nov. 12--Montana. Nov. 19--Coastal Carolina. Nov. 21--Wofford.

Dec. 3--Florida State. Dec. 7--New Orleans. Dec. 10--South Dakota State. Dec. 20--Omaha. Dec. 28-Texas A&M.

Don't get too excited about that last one. This A& M is one with an addendum: --Corpus Christi.

Florida State sneaked onto the schedule because the Gophers are a home team this season in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Somehow, the 'Noles end up being the Gophers' Challenge opponent about 50 percent of the time. When do we get North Carolina to come to the Barn in December to see how the other half lives?

Other notes: Lehigh doesn't have C.J. McCollum, so forget that one. South Dakota State doesn't have Nate Wolters, so forget that one.

As for the rest of the November-December schedule, the next-best attraction to Florida State might be the exhibition opener vs. Cardinal Stritch (Milwaukee) on Nov. 1. That outfit is the defending national champ in NAIA Division II. And exhibitions are still half-price, I believe.

The whole danged non-conference schedule (except for the Challenge) should be half-price. That's not happening, because Gophers baskeball fans get spanked in the pocket book every November and December, only to cringe and respond:

"Thank you, Goldy. May I have another.''







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