The Big Ten was the first major conference to announce earlier this month that only league games would be played this season in fall sports during the pandemic.

College football is slowly saying goodbye to nonconference play. Is college basketball next in line?

“Yeah that certainly is an option,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino told the Star Tribune recently. “Everybody has been talking about it. It’s been good for me in a sense, because I sometimes think about the future too much. We have no idea.”

The Gophers 2020-21 men’s basketball nonconference schedule hasn’t been released yet. Typically by August, there already would be league opponents to look at.

Pitino’s team is opening the season Nov. 11 vs. Albany at Williams Arena.

Other home games in November include Kent State, Long Island and Green Bay. They are scheduled to open the Hall of Fame Tip-Off on Nov. 21 against Central Florida at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. The HOF Tip-Off's second game would be Nov. 22 either against Rhode Island or Marquette.

In December, the Gophers are playing in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge (no opponent announced) on the road. They also have home games vs. Mississippi State, Fort Wayne, North Dakota and likely St. Louis (game still being finalized). Two early December conference games also haven’t been announced by the Big Ten. The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is a good reason for waiting to release the schedule.

“The obvious thing is figure out what’s going on in the fall, especially with football,” Pitino said. “That’s the most pressing thing. Obviously because we don’t start until the winter. College sports is on a different level than pro sports. It’s a totally different dynamic. We can’t create these bubbles like the NBA and NHL are doing. The NBA has shown that it’s working. But there is a different dynamic when you have 35,000 students on campus. The most important thing is the wellbeing of the student-athletes.”

The Division I oversight committee discussed this week how evaluation tools such as the NET and RPI “become less reliable when conferences play league-only schedules.” The NCAA tournament selection committee emphasizes that games in November and December count just as much as February and March. What happens if that March Madness resumes are limited to league games?

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Pitino said. “We all can sit around and have theories about pushing it back and doing only conference games. We all want football. We all want basketball. But we just don’t know. That’s the scary part of it all. My singular focus right now is getting the guys on campus better and continue improving as a program.”

In their second week of summer practice, the Gophers still don't have their full roster on campus. Starting point guard Marcus Carr, top incoming freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr., graduate transfer Brandon Johnson and Turkish guard David Mutaf have still not arrived. Pitino told them being with the team is "optional" right now. 

Hall of Famer Rick Pitino tweeted this month that he preferred the season be pushed back to January and only play league games. “Buy some more time for a vaccine and to get things under control,” the former Louisville and first-year Iona coach wrote. “Although I can’t wait to be back on the sidelines, the health of my players and staff is what’s really important.”

Pitino agreed with his father on that last point. The No. 1 priority is staying healthy. So the Gophers are focusing on what they can control right now, which is being safe and getting better while on campus.

“I don’t know what’s coming in the future,” Pitino said. “I know I’m excited to coach the team and I want to get back to competing. But the most important thing is your health.”

Gophers men's basketball 2020-21 nonconference schedule (not official yet)

Exhibition: Concordia-St. Paul

November games: Albany (Nov. 11 opener), Kent State, Long Island, Green Bay

November tournament: Hall of Fame Tip-Off vs. Central Florida on Nov. 21 and vs. winner of Marquette and Rhode Island on Nov. 22

December games: Big Ten/ACC Challenge opponent (road), Mississippi State, Ft. Wayne, North Dakota, St. Louis*, Early Big Ten games

* - Still being finalized