Let’s play a little Password: Twins … Vikings … Timberwolves … Wild … Gopher football. What’s the answer? Well, there are plenty of adjectives that could link each of those five teams together — underachieving, embarrassing, pathetic, vomit-inducing. You get the idea. However, one significant omission from that list was none other than the Gopher basketball team. Yes, in the Land of 10,000 losses there is still one squad that holds the potential for a winning season in their respective sport and one that actually merits excitement as the season draws near.

Being a Minnesota sports fan over the past calendar year has sucked, to be perfectly frank. And as the Twins melted down to oblivion, the Vikings showed less spine than a jellyfish and Wisconsin fans exhausted themselves from so much celebrating, college basketball season never had a more timely arrival. Sure, the Gophers had a dramatic meltdown at the end of last season, and due to string of “only in Minnesota” misfortunes, the team ended up starting its shooting guard at point guard and failed to make the NIT in a forgettable second half. Yet, there is reason for excitement this year and several new and exciting additions to the team will have the Barn rocking. Minnesota has diminished expectations relative to last year, which gives them the opportunity to sneak up on opponents, rather than being snuck up upon. They certainly have their work cut out for them, but the opportunity for success can definitely be legitimized by the talent on the court and Tubby’s youth movement has the opportunity to lay down a very solid foundation for future seasons.

But, of course, we’re concerned about winning this year as well. So let’s take a look at this year’s non-conference schedule and what to expect from the first part of the season.

Below is the 2011-12 non-conference schedule and corresponding 2010-11 RPI numbers (home games in CAPS):

Nov. 11: BUCKNELL (79)
Nov. 17: FAIRFIELD (97)
Nov. 21: MOUNT ST. MARY’S (230)
Nov. 24: vs. DePaul (234) — Old Spice Classic
Nov. 25: vs. Indiana State (84) or Texas Tech (165) — Old Spice Classic 2nd round
Nov. 27: vs. Dayton (70), Fairfield (97), Arizona State (161) or Wake Forest (260) — Old Spice Classic 3rd round
Nov. 30: VIRGINIA TECH (62) — Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Dec. 3: USC (67)
Dec. 10: ST. PETER’S (92)

Outside of the Old Spice Classic, the Gophers do not leave Williams Arena for any non-conference game, meaning they begin the season with 13 home- or neutral-court games. Two of the highest-profile teams to come to town include Virginia Tech for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and USC. The Hokies are a projected tournament team (like we haven’t heard that before) while the Trojans can realistically expect an NIT bid. The Gophers don’t have a premier team on their non-conference docket and won’t have the opportunity to face a Louisville or a North Carolina this year, but they also have the opportunity to get some decent resume-building wins at home. Mid-major powerhouses Bucknell (Patriot League) and Fairfield (MAAC) provide some decent fodder as both won their conferences last season and are expected to do so again. St. Peter’s took the MAAC postseason tournament and also presents a decent matchup for Minnesota.

The Gophers find themselves in the Old Spice Classic this year for their holiday tournament amongst a fairly weak field. In fact, their opening round game is against Big East bottom-dweller DePaul. Additionally, there is potential to play a nationally-relevant opponent and the most high-profile team they can hope to face is the Dayton Flyers. Not necessarily the best situation for making a good early season statement.

The pieces are in place for a 13-0 or 12-1 start. In fact, anything less than an 11-2 start for the Gophers probably merits concern. That said, Minnesota will have show that they are indeed capable of taking care of games they should win while playing at home. A minor slip-up to USC or VT would be tough to swallow and having both wins on their resume would pay dividends later in the season as they make a postseason run.

Also check out SelectionSunday’s non-conference breakdown and Myron Medcalf’s breakdown for further examination.