Lindsay Whalen recently took a look back at her first two seasons coaching the Gophers women's basketball team. Her first two years as a head coach, before the COVID-19-torn 2020-21 season.
"We were 21-1 in the nonconference, pre-COVID,'' Whalen said after practice Tuesday. "And my first year, we were 9-9 in the conference. Second year we were 5-13. So, OK, it's great to go 22-1. But if you're not prepared for the conference, then you're not doing your team a good service."
Wednesday the Gophers (6-3) will host North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Williams Arena. Then the team will jump into the first two games of Big Ten Conference play.
The undefeated Tar Heels (6-0) will be the fifth team from a power conference the Gophers will face in the 10 games before the start of conference play.
That number ties Maryland for the most nonconference games against power conference schools in the Big Ten.
By comparison, Iowa has yet to play such a school. Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska will play one each, thanks to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
There have been more losses as a result. The Gophers took double-digit losses to second-ranked Connecticut in the opening game of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, but bounced back to beat Syracuse the next night. They lost to Oklahoma to finish that tournament, but have an overtime victory at Arizona State on their résumé.
In all, once the Gophers play North Carolina, they will have played against five big-conference schools, four of which played in the postseason last year, three in the NCAA tournament. Another opponent, Bradley, was in the NCAA tournament last year, too.
Whalen feels tougher competition — even if it means some difficult losses — will serve the team well in conference play.
Point guard Jasmine Powell agreed.
"That experience we're getting, playing this many power schools, we've never seen that before, at least since I've been here,'' she said. "I think that definitely carries over to the Big Ten.''
Frankly, there is a need for both higher-end competition and teams the Gophers are expected to beat. The Gophers sustained an unexpected loss to Jacksonville in the official season opener. Whalen can look at different combinations and rotations in relatively easy victories. She can take a look at new players, freshmen and transfers, to see how they fit before rotations tighten in Big Ten play.
One example is the decision to play Powell and Alexia Smith — normally Powell's backup at the point — together extensively Sunday against UTSA; that is something fans will see more of.
But a team also needs to be pushed. This year, the Gophers were. Both by whom they played and the fact the team played nine games in 20 days in one November stretch.
"We all know the Big Ten is great,'' guard Gadiva Hubbard said. She has played for both Whalen and her predecessor, Marlene Stollings, who was known for playing soft nonconference schedules. "So an experience like the overtime win at Arizona State teaches you what players you can go to, what plays work, how hard you have to play, all that stuff.''
It remains to be seen whether tougher prep will pay off. But in Whalen's first three years, the Gophers began Big Ten play 1-4, 1-5 and 1-6. Perhaps a tougher nonconference schedule will change that.
"We're definitely more prepared at this point,'' Whalen said.