Today at GI we ranked those non-conference challenges.
1. Florida State. The Noles will likely be the best team that Minnesota plays in the non-conference season. Most believe they are a sure pick for the NCAA Tournament and a potential bottom half top 25 team. Dwayne Bacon is one of the best players in the ACC and he’s also part of the league’s best backcourt with Xavier Rathan-Myles. Add in five star potential One and Done talent Jonathan Isaac and you have a Leonard Hamilton team that is incredibly talented. This could be FSU’s Sweet 16 year and surely their first trip to the Dance in five seasons.
2. Vanderbilt. Vandy is picked fifth in the SEC to start the year and is led by Luke Kornet who as a senior has the potential to be a first team five all league caliber player. The Seven foot Kornet is a big time shot blocker and Coach Bryce Drew will need that as he pairs with Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Robertson, and four star recruit Clevon Brown.
3. Arkansas. The Razorbacks have high expectations for the year. Most feel they will be in the NIT but the Razorbacks are thinking NCAA Tournament. Moses Kinglsey and Dusty Hannahs both scored 16 a game last season and Kinglsey averaged nearly a double-double last season. Mike Anderson’s team will have a lot of new pieces but they have two of the top nine or ten returning players in the league. Luckily for Minnesota they get this game at home.
4. St. John’s. The Redmen are picked to finish 9th in the league but added Shamorie Ponds, the guard Minnesota wanted badly, to go with a couple recruits that could start. Add in the return of Italian guard Federico Mussini and Malik Ellison and they should be a strong opponent for the Gophers who are recruiting their area hard.
5. UT Arlington. The top team in the Sun Belt won 24 games a year ago and they bring back their top six guys including the best PG in their league Erick Neal and Kevin Harvey who was putting up 18 and 10 a game before tearing his ACL in the middle of the year. They are a big, experience team that is gunning for 30 wins this season.
6. Northern Illinois. NIU has traditionally not been a good basketball program but that will change. They are the pick of many to win the West of the MAC League and they have the talent to do it. Local fans will know the name Marshawn Wilson who was considered the best recruit in Minnesota’s high school class in 2015. Minnesota wanted Wilson but like most schools couldn’t get him in. NIU did and that’s paying off.
7. Southern Illinois. The Missouri Valley club lost two of their best players but bring back three starters and have one of the most experienced backcourts in their league. Sean O’Brien is the top payer for the team picked to finish 7th out of the ten in the league.
8. LIU Brooklyn. The last time this team was here there was a brawl at center court. The Northeast Conference opponent is a favorite to win the conference with Jerome Frink and Martin Hermannsson back as all league first teamers. In all the team has four starters back from a .500 team.
9. NJIT. A team that is still very new to D1 hoops and the Atlantic Sun, NJIT should be a nice break for the Gophs who will be coming off a tough five game stretch. Damon Lynn is an all league caliber player for NJIT who is preseason picked 5th out of eight teams after winning 20 games last season.
10. Mt St. Mary’s. The Mountaineers are picked to finish 4th in the Northeast Conference although the league is not very good. The team has an all league guy back in Junior Robinson plus add some guys who weren’t able to play last year so this will be a tough team.
11. Georgia Southern. One of four Sun Belt teams that Minnesota plays, the Eagles were just 14-17 last year but they have all starters back, they have two all league players back, added some transfers, and should be a good opponent as Minnesota hopes to go 4-0 against the Sun Belt.
12. UL-Lafayette. The Ragin Cajuns lost the Sun Belt player of the year (Shawn Long) but do return three players that averaged nine a game a year ago. They won 19 games last season and are picked to finish 5th out of 12 in their league.
13. Arkansas State. ASU has a new coach, won 11 games last season, is picked to finish near the bottom of the league, and should give Minnesota a nice December 23rd warm-up before Christmas and the Big Ten season.
The Final Verdict. This schedule is tougher than I thought it was. Florida State is an opponent that Minnesota will likely be big underdogs to, the SEC teams rank with the top five or six in the league although the league is down, and the low major opponents are mostly all teams that rank with the best in their league.
It’s interesting that the Gophers are facing four Sun Belt teams. I’ve been saying all along I thought they could go 11-2 in the non-conference schedule but I think I feel more comfortable with 10-3 at the moment as I think that’s more likely for a team coming off an 8 win year. I just think they could get upset by somebody while they are learning to play together. Pitino did a nice job putting together a tougher non-conference schedule than I thought.