For the first time in Richard Pitino’s five years in Minnesota, expectations are high heading into a season. The Gophers are ranked No. 15 in the nation and are returning all five starters from last year’s NCAA tournament team. With a roster full of talent – including two players featured on the preseason All-Big Ten team (Amir Coffey and Nate Mason) – the Gophers will be circled on opposing team’s schedules all season long. But here’s a list of Minnesota’s 10 toughest opponents of 2017-18.
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10. Providence, Nov. 13 (road)
The Friars won 20 games last season and return their top-seven in minutes played, which includes four double-digit scorers: forward Rodney Bullock (15.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg), forward Emmitt Holt (12.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg), guard Kyron Cartwright (11.4 ppg, 6.7 apg) and guard Jalen Lindsey (10.7 ppg). Providence also had a well-regarded recruiting class, considered top 20 in the nation.
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9. Harvard, Dec. 30 (home)
Tommy Amaker has turned Harvard into a solid mid-major, one that can give any opponent fits. The Crimson were 18-10 last season and return their two top scorers, guard Bryce Aiken (14.5 ppg) and forward Seth Towns (12.3), both of whom were freshmen in 2016-17. Those two were among a talented class which saw six freshmen average more than eight minutes a game, with four of those playing 18 or more minutes per game. With that kind of experience from a young core, expect an uptick from Harvard in 2017-18.
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8. Michigan, Feb. 3 (road)
The Wolverines will need some players to step up after losing three starters from last year's team. Two of those should be a pair of transfer guards. Charles Matthews is ready to play after sitting out a year coming over from Kentucky, while Jaaron Simmons is a grad transfer from Ohio who averaged 15.9 points and 6.5 assists in 2016-17 for the Bobcats. On the inside, well, 6-10 forward Moritz Wagner (12.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) is a steady outside shooter. If some bit players from last season and incoming recruits can fill other holes, Michigan could be dangerous come February.
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7. Maryland, Jan. 18 (road)
The Terrapins won 24 games last season but will need to find a way to replace star guard Melo Trimble. Look no further than three players who started as freshmen last season, led by guards Anthony Cowan (10.3 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Kevin Huerter (9.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and forward Justin Jackson (10.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg), the latter of whom could be in for a big leap in 2017-18. Added to the mix will be 6-9 center Sean Obi, a graduate transfer from Duke hasn't played since being injured 10 games into the 2015-16 season.
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6. Alabama, Nov. 25 (road)
If you're looking for a potential breakout team in 2017-18, it might just be the Crimson Tide. Alabama was just 18-15 last year, including a loss in the first round of the NIT. Looking to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012, Alabama will rely on a couple of young guards -- sophomore Dazon Ingram (10.6 ppg, 3.3 apg) and super freshman Collin Sexton, the headliner of one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Another sophomore, Baxton Key (12.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg) leads an improving frontcourt.
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5. Northwestern, Jan. 10 (road) and Jan. 23 (home)
Much like Minnesota, the Wildcats are coming off an NCAA tournament experience and are ranked in the preseason polls. Northwestern has a strong backcourt tandem in Bryant McIntosh (14.8 ppg, 5.2 apg) and Scottie Linsley (14.1 ppg, 42.4 3%), but also a potentially imposing inside game with 6-8 Derek Parson (8.6 ppg, 8.0 rpb, 61.1 FG%), 6-10 Barret Benson and two players returning from injuries, 6-9 Rapolas Ivanauskas and 6-8 Aaron Falzon.
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4. Purdue, Jan. 13 (home) and Feb. 25 (road)
The good news for Minnesota is Big Ten player of the year Caleb Swanigan is no longer around. The bad news is pretty much everyone else is back from a Boilermakers team which went 27-8 last season. Purdue figures to cause teams problems with a strong frontcourt of 7-2 center Isaac Haas (12.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and 6-8 forward Vince Edwards (12.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 47 3s). Purdue's backcourt has plenty of experience as well with seniors Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson as well as sophomore Casen Edwards; the trio combining for 174 3-pointers in 2016-17.
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3. Wisconsin, Feb. 19 (road)
But Wisconsin lost four starters and will be relying on a bevy of young players, with a number of freshmen expected to have to contribute. However, Wisconsin also has 6-10 junior Ethan Happ (14.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg), considered one of the top players in the country. This might be a down year, comparably speaking, for the Badgers, however the Gophers haven’t won at the Kohl Center since 2009 and Minnesota is just 1-7 against Wisconsin under Richard Pitino.
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2. Miami, Nov. 29 (home)
This is one of those big early games in the season that can have big influence in seeding in March. As part of the Big Ten/ACC challenge, the Gophers drew the Hurricanes, a team coming off an NCAA tournament appearance and boasting potentially one of the better backcourts in the nation with sophomore Bruce Brown (11.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and top recruit freshman Lonnie Walker. The Hurricanes are deep at guard, with senior Ja'Quan Newton (13.5 ppg, 3.4 apg) and another freshman, Chris Lykes. Miami will provide a good test for the Gophers.
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1. Michigan State, Feb. 13 (home)
Minnesota will have played 28 games before it takes on the class of the Big Ten, Tom Izzo’s Spartans. Miles Bridges opted to return to East Lansing for one more season, delaying his inevitable NBA paychecks in pursuit of a national championship. Michigan State is picked to easily win the Big Ten, and Bridges, the Player of the Year. The Gophers lost both regular-season matchups with Izzo’s squad last year, but rallied to beat the Spartans 63-58 in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals in March.