Not to dismiss the Gophers men's basketball team's 35-point victory vs. Cleveland State at home Tuesday, but coach Richard Pitino knows the season really starts now.

This will be the most difficult nonconference schedule during his tenure moving forward, Pitino said.

Saturday's matchup with Oklahoma in Sioux Falls, S.D., marks the beginning of three consecutive games away from home vs. high-major opponents, which hasn't happened in the Gophers' first four games of a season since 1956.

The Sooners, who advanced to the NCAA tournament's second round last season, could end up being the best team the Gophers play outside of the Big Ten.

Then there's a quick turnaround next week with back-to-back road games at Butler on Tuesday and at Utah on Friday.

"We want to challenge our guys," Pitino said. "There's nobody in the country in my opinion who has a harder three games in a row like we have."

The difficult schedule doesn't end there.

Starting in late November, the Gophers will play five consecutive games against Power Six opponents, including early Big Ten games at Iowa on Dec. 9 and vs. Ohio State on Dec. 15, both at Williams Arena.

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla will cover the Gophers-Clemson game at the Barn on Dec. 2. He expects by then the Gophers will know whether they have a realistic chance of returning to the NCAA tournament.

"Getting one out of three would be solid," Fraschilla said of the next three games. "Winning two out of three would be outstanding. Butler, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Utah are all going to be bubble-type teams in my opinion. So, this is almost like a playoff for the Gophers. You don't want to look back on this season, especially if the Big Ten is not as strong as it normally is, and see 0-3 there."

Fraschilla watched Oklahoma's 85-67 victory vs. Texas-San Antonio on Tuesday and believes Lon Kruger's team could finish as high as top three in the Big 12.

Junior Brady Manek is on the preseason watch list for the Karl Malone Award, given to the nation's top power forward. Senior forward Kristian Doolittle was named Big 12 most improved player last season. The backcourt of freshman De'Vion Harmon and Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves combined for 46 points Tuesday.

A year ago, the Gophers beat eventual Pac-12 champion Washington in Vancouver, one of their best victories all season. This could potentially be the same Saturday if they beat Oklahoma.

"My gut feeling is there won't be as many strong Big Ten wins," Fraschilla said. "So, these out-of-conference performances are critical."

Why challenge a team with seven newcomers with this type of schedule? Well, Pitino had no idea he would have such big roster turnover in his seventh season running the program. He didn't anticipate All-Big Ten guard Amir Coffey would leave early for the pros. He was expecting junior big man Eric Curry to be healthy and not having to rehab another season-ending knee injury.

Still, the Gophers showed in Tuesday's 85-50 victory over Cleveland State that they have some talent despite losing three starters from a 22-win NCAA tournament team.

Marcus Carr and Payton Willis combined for 35 points, 16 assists and eight of the team's 13 three-pointers, the best player debuts for the program since Pitino's first year in 2013.

Sophomore center Daniel Oturu provided an ode to graduated double-double machine Jordan Murphy by posting 16 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in his first game as the focal point inside.

The Gophers look at this tough upcoming stretch of games as being their first chance to prove they deserve to be an NCAA tournament team.

"You reap all the rewards if you win them," senior forward Michael Hurt said. "I would say all of these could be Quad 1 wins. That's huge when it comes to tournament time. [The NCAA tournament selection committee doesn't] really care what time of the year you're playing them."