The Golden Gophers released their non-conference schedule yesterday, to complete lack of fanfare, excluding the traditional gnashing of teeth that accompanies the annual realization that there will be no headline stealing teams at The Barn until the Big Ten season begins.
Date Day Opponent Nov. 1 Friday Cardinal Stritch (Exh) 4 Monday Concordia-St. Paul (Exh) 8 Friday Lehigh 12 Tuesday Montana 16 Saturday at Richmond 19 Tuesday Coastal Carolina 21 Thursday Wofford 25-27 Mon.-Wed. at Maui Invitational 25 Monday Syracuse 26 Tuesday Arkansas/California 27 Wednesday TBD Dec. 3 Tuesday Florida State* 7 Saturday New Orleans 10 Tuesday South Dakota State 20 Friday Nebraska Omaha 28 Saturday Texas A&M Corpus Christi
While seeing a national powerhouse at The Barn would certainly be exciting for fans, and would drive ticket sales, it wouldn’t necessarily help the team get better or make the NCAA tournament; the twin goals of the non-conference season.
In a more perfect world, a schedule that is best for the team would also be the best for the fans. Unfortunately, a team with several new players, a new coach, and new system is not a perfect world. The team will need time to gel as a cohesive unit, the coaching staff will need time to evaluate players and place them in position to succeed , and the players will need to time to learn to play up-tempo but not sloppy basketball. If you remember last season’s plethora of unforced turnovers that occurred while playing excruciatingly slow, you understand the difficult task at hand. The Gophers have a chance to sneak into the top half of the Big Ten next season if everything comes together, and might even be a fringe bubble team by the end of the season, but only if they improve throughout the season. That sort of improvement is unlikely while playing significantly better teams.
Non-conference scheduling does not take place in a bubble, and the greater context of NCAA tournament qualification can’t be ignored. One of the main criteria that the selection committee uses is the RPI. Debate rages on and on over whether the RPI should be used to determine if a team makes the NCAA tournament (it shouldn’t by the way) but until the selection committee abandons this antiquated and fatally flawed formula, teams have to take it into account. Several wins against not-horrible non-conference opponents are more beneficial than a game against a nationally ranked team, that could ultimately result in a loss. In that context, Minnesota’s non-conference schedule is decent. Montana, Richmond, and Florida State should end up in the RPI top 100. The Gophers will play Syracuse in Maui, and barring utter disaster, would have a chance to beat two other good teams. If they can win three decent non-conference teams, they could play themselves into the NCAA tournament if they can play well in the Big Ten.
There is a time and a place for marquee non-conference match-ups. They can help a team climb onto the national stage, and they can significantly boost a team’s NCAA tournament seed. Last season would have been an ideal opportunity to play a home game against a big name program. This season, and most other seasons, the Gophers have not been in that position. Until the team gets significantly better, the non-conference schedule won’t get significantly better either.