Saturday afternoon, the Gophers women's basketball team will end a seven-game start to their season that hasn't yet left Williams Arena when they host Drake, an offensively capable team that has already won at Iowa State and scored 90 points against vaunted Iowa.
The game, designated "high school day," was going to have a good crowd to begin with. But a well-traveling Drake fan base will send folks north from Des Moines, too. The game is expected to draw about 5,000 or more fans.
The Gophers are 6-1, with their only loss to ranked Connecticut. For the most part Minnesota's opponents have been smaller schools with a mix of success. Their first three wins came against teams currently 2-22. But their last two — against Stony Brook and Norfolk State — were against teams expected to vie for an NCAA tournament bid.
The same holds for Drake. The Bulldogs have three of their top five scorers back from the team that won 22 games last year and advanced to the NCAA tournament, losing by two points to Louisville, which reached a regional final.
After Connecticut, this will be the Gophers' toughest game so far. Minnesota will then travel, for the first time, to Kentucky for a game Wednesday before opening the Big Ten Conference schedule against Purdue on Dec. 12.
"We had three teams this week that are all teams that will contend or did contend for their conference championship," Gophers coach Dawn Plitzuweit said. "Most Power Five teams don't want to play those teams. At the same time we're learning, and growing and developing. And now we turn around and play a team that is probably the best of the three."
We're also learning a bit about the Gophers in Plitzuweit's first season. Here are some early impressions:
• The team is focusing on defense. Last year Gophers opponents shot 42% overall and scored 73.6 points per game. This year, so far, opponents stand at 48.9 points and 33% shooting. Part of this is the level of opponent. But even Connecticut struggled, relatively speaking, on offense, scoring a season-low 62 points on 44.1% shooting.
• Newcomers are making an impact. The Gophers have two new starters: transfer center Sophie Hart and Wisconsin recruit Grace Grocholski. Hart is averaging 10.0 points and 4.6 rebounds and shooting 57.7%. Grocholski is second on the team in scoring (10.9) and rebounding (5.3) and third in assists (2.6). Her eight turnovers are the lowest among Gophers starters. And her much-heralded shot has started coming around; she scored 26 points in Wednesday's win over Norfolk State, making five of eight threes — the most by a Big Ten freshman this season.
• Second seasons. Point guard Amaya Battle, guard Mara Braun and forward Mallory Heyer are back after playing big minutes last season. Plitzuweit said Battle's game against Norfolk State — 14 points, 5-for-10 shooting, five assists and four steals — was her best as a Gopher. She is shooting 48.1% (38.9% last year); her assists are up, turnovers down. Heyer has continued to be perhaps the Gophers' steadiest performer, with a nose for rebounds (8.3 per game), regular scoring (9.1) and efficiency. Braun has been up and down with her shot. But even Wednesday, when she made just three of 12 shots, she was the calming force against Norfolk State's press, scored nine points, had three assists and five steals. She leads the team in scoring (16.7, up a point from last year), threes made per game (3.0 vs. 2.2 last year) and has improved her rebounding to 4.6 from 3.4. She is also 18-for-18 from the free throw line.
• Needing more from the bench. The Gophers will need more effective depth to succeed in Big Ten play. Minnesota reserves have scored 150 points in seven games, but 105 of those came against Long Island, Chicago State and Cal State-Northridge, three games the Gophers won by an average of 43.3 points. Against Connecticut, Stony Brook and Norfolk State, the bench scored just 18 points.