They put in the work all summer. Their trip to Croatia and Greece allowed them hours of extra practice, time to jell, time to bond. So it's not like the University of Minnesota women's basketball team got on the floor Wednesday for the first official practice of the 2023-24 season as a bunch of strangers.
"It's like we had a preseason during the summer," point guard Amaya Battle said after that first practice ended. "But this felt different, too."
As new coach Dawn Plitzuweit said, now the clock is ticking. The Nov. 8 opener against Long Island is weeks away. "You have a long ways to go and a short time to get there," Plitzuweit said. "Remember that song?"
There is still work to be done blending the new faces with the old. Highly-recruited center Sophie Hart played with the Gophers in Europe, but hasn't played in an NCAA game since early last season, when she left North Carolina State, entered the transfer portal and chose to come back home to Minnesota. There are freshmen who will have significant roles this season. There is a new scheme, on both ends of the floor.
"And now, officially, you have a limited amount of time," Plitzuweit said.
The trip to Europe bonded the team. But, in preparing for such a trip — during which the competition was not likely up to the level they'll see in Big Ten conference play — the players were prepared for many different scenarios.
Now things will get more exact. Hours of work on movement in the offense while maintaining good spacing. How the defensive scheme will run.
"Today you start to add all the pieces of that together," Plitzuweit said. "You're more focused, you can be more in control of what's going on."
Still, it appears there is a confidence among the team that a top-half Big Ten finish is a goal, as is a deeper run into the conference tournament. Last season the Gophers finished 11-19 overall, 4-14 in conference play.
"We're a new team, we have a new identity," Battle said. "There is no last year for us. Yeah, it didn't go well. But this is a fresh start. It's new. There is no pressure from last year. It's more wanting to prove to people that we're here, we're good. This is our year."
It has been a productive summer for so many players. Mara Braun won a medal in international 3x3 play for Team USA. She returned to the team in great shape, with a stronger finish at the basket and a quicker release on her shot.
Battle has put up thousands of shots in an attempt to change her release. Last year her shot came from almost behind her head. An improvement on her .390 shooting percentage would give her more space in drives to the rim. Braun (15.6), Mallory Heyer (10.4) and Battle (9.0) were first, third and fourth in the team in scoring and first, second and fourth in minutes played.
Hart's height (6-5) will give the Gophers legitimate size when protecting the paint.
"I'm just itching to get back on the court," said Hart, who last played in an NCAA game last November. "I got a little taste in Greece and Croatia. But that just makes you hungrier."
Over the summer and into the fall Plitzuweit and her staff have noted how hard the team is willing to work. How badly they want to be good. How coachable they are.
It's just there is a lot of coaching to be done. "We haven't had enough reps at anything to be really good in one area yet," Plitzuweit said.
But the group has goals, including the first NCAA bid since 2018. "I don't think that's being overly cheery," Hart said. "That is an expectation we have for ourselves this year."