Today we begin our slightly too early, slightly too in-depth look at the 2012-2013 Golden Gopher basketball schedule. While a top four finish in the Big Ten is more likely than at any point during the Tubby Smith era, given the events of the last few years, I have a somewhat more modest goal for the team. All I really want is a stress free Selection Sunday and appearance in the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament. For the Gophers to achieve that goal, they will need around 20 wins overall and 10 Big Ten regular season wins.

There are many paths to 20 overall wins and 10 conference wins. I’ve divided the season’s games into three categories, must-wins, should wins, and bonus wins. The must-wins include those early season gimme games, and the easiest Big Ten games. If the Gophers lose more than one of these games, things will start to get complicated on Selection Sunday.

The should wins are just that. Minnesota should win, and is fully capable of winning these games. If they don’t, it is not the end of the world, but they’ll have left themselves some work to do. Any loss of a should-win game can easily be made up for by a bonus-win, and one bonus-win could even make up for a couple of losses in this category.

In the bonus-win games, the Gophers will not be favored, and in some cases will be heavy underdogs. This category will also include road games at arenas that have historically been houses of horror, regardless of the talent level of either the Gophers or their opponent. Winning bonus games, depending on how the season goes, could either launch the Gophers into conference title contention, or save a tournament bid if there were earlier season slip-ups.

Please note that the third Battle 4 Atlantis game will not be placed in any category given the many possibilities of the opponent. Now, on to the must-wins.

November 9 vs. American University Eagles 
It seems appropriate to start the season on Friday of election week against a team from the nation’s capital. The Eagles will be a competent team, and should allow the Gophers to reintegrate Mbakwe and Walker into the team. Tubby Smith has usually scheduled a mid-major team primed for trip to the NCAA tournament for the season opener (eg. Bucknell and Wofford). This season the opener should be much easier, considering that their best player, Stephen Lumpkins, . American won 20 games last season, but nearly everyone of consequence from last years team has moved on.

 November 12 vs. University of Toledo Rockets 
The 2002 Gopher football team is evidence that taking an opponent, namely Toledo, too lightly can lead to a season derailing upset. In this match-up, even the Gophers at their worst should able to dispatch the Rockets at their best. Toledo is one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country, which makes them the perfect opponent to boost Trevor Mbakwe’s confidence.

November 18 vs. Richmond University Spiders
If there was a game on the border between the must-win and should win, this would be it. It may also be the most competitive game on the home non-conference schedule which is not saying much. The Spiders, out of the Atlantic 10, are usually decent, making the NCAA tournament every few years and occasionally doing much more. Last season was not good to the Spiders, finishing in the bottom half of the Atlantic 10. They’ll bring back their best players, and should be much better if they can manage to grab a defensive rebound or two. They allowed offensive rebounds on 36% of their opponents missed shots last year.

December 1 vs. North Florida Ospreys
If basketball games were determined by the attributes of mascots, the large talons of the osprey would not bode well to the lowly 13 striped ground squirrel. On the basketball court, the Ospreys play about as well as their feathered name-sake. North Florida finished in the middle of the Atlantic Sun conference a season ago, but may be slightly better this year because of returning upperclassmen. If you are hoping to attend a game that will turn into a dunk show, this would be it. The Ospreys ranked 295th in the country in steals allowed and have poor interior defense, which should lead to lots of open court dunks.

December 11 vs. North Dakota State Bison
Remember when Ben Woodside was the one that got away and North Dakota State was the darling of the college basketball world? Now the one that got away and the basketball darlings are a couple hundred miles south, and the Bison are still trying to recapture their earlier success. It takes more than one player and one season to build a program. Last season NDSU finished fourth in the Summit League, and they’ll return nearly everyone of consequence including their five leading scorers. Still, they shouldn’t be able to compete with the Gophers, but if we are lucky, they will be competitive enough to turn this into a decent win by the time the season ends. Last year Minnesota only beat the Bison by four in the midst of their post-Mbakwe morose. If everyone is healthy this should not be a close game.

December 22 vs Lafayette College Leopards
The Leopards out of the Patriot League fill the annual nightmare before Christmas slot – bad basketball when no one is watching. Lafayette finished last season with a 13-18 record, and lost their top three scorers to graduation. This could be ugly, and the only thing going for Lafayette is that the Gophers could be looking to the epic showdown against Michigan State on New Year’s Eve. Lafayette is historically horrible at defense, so this might be a good time to try a new offensive set or two prior to the Big Ten season.

January 6 vs. Northwestern University Wildcats
Northwestern won’t be awful, and in fact they should have been quite good if JerShon Cobb wasn’t suspended for the season for what sounds like Devoe Joseph related reasons. For some reason though, the Wildcats have been awful at The Barn, losing by 23 last season and 11 two seasons ago with no road wins against the Gophers since 2007. It is not hard to imagine a scenario over the last few seasons in which a win at The Barn would have been enough to get Wildcats into the NCAA tournament. If they have a chance to finally dance (no really guys, this year is the year, not any of those other this years) they need to beat the Gophers on the road. Without Cobb, I don’t see that happening.

January 29 vs. Nebraska University Cornhuskers and March 6 at Nebraska
I’d rather not think about what the Gophers record would have been without their two wins against Nebraska and the excellent timing of those wins. Minnesota’s seven point road win injected some life into a season that would have been basically over if they lost, and the comfortable home win to end the regular season gave the team confidence for their post-season run. Now, the Gophers face the Huskers who are without their three best players from last season.

February 10 vs. University of Illinois Fighting Illini
Last season the Illini were thought to have all the talent in the world and a bad coach and little effort. This season, they’ll have a better coach and should actually try to win games. However, they’ll be learning a new system and their still considerable talent is running out of chances to live up to their potential. Meyers Leonard is in the NBA. DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul are back in the back-court, but sometimes did more to hurt than help their team (both struggle to shoot 40% from the field). Their front court is a mystery, and unless there is front court talent and depth lurking somewhere on their roster, this season should be a lot like last season, but with optimism!

March 2 vs. Penn State University Nittany Lions
This is year two of the Gophers drawing the scheduling short straw, playing one of the worst teams in the Big Ten only once. Last season the Gophers beat Tim Frasier by 14 on the road, and since Penn State still doesn’t have anyone other than Frasier, the Gophers should beat Frasier again by double digits at home. The Nittany Lions do of course have 14 other players on the roster, but when one player leads a team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals, there isn’t anyone worth discussing, or for the other team to guard.

If the Gophers can take care of business in these must-win games, they’ll have 11 overall wins and six conference wins, and they should be well on their way to successful season.