So far the Gophers women's basketball team has answered most of the questions. For example:
• Can the Gophers come out fast, with a new coaching staff, and handle lesser competition? Yes, as evidenced by a 4-1 start — the only loss coming to Connecticut — that included an average victory margin of 42 points.
• Can they take a step against quality midmajor competition? Yes, with consecutive victories over Stony Brook, Norfolk State and a double-overtime victory over Drake, three teams with NCAA tournament aspirations.
• Can they take it on the road? Wednesday at Kentucky — a team that has struggled a bit, but a Power Five team nonetheless — the Gophers turned on the defense in the second half in 19-point victory.
And now: the Big Ten.
Minnesota opens Big Ten play Sunday at Williams Arena against a Purdue team that went to the NCAA tournament last year, with three of its four top scorers back. After the Gophers' 8-1 start, with balanced scoring and better defense, it is another step, another question.
Gophers coach Dawn Plitzuweit is not about to say, at this point, what the potential of her team is. Her favorite P-word is process. But she has seen things she likes.
"We're a team that has the ability to continue to get better," she said. "And they're willing to try new things to do that, and that's not easy to do."
But how good can they be? "We don't look at that right now," Plitzuweit said. "We're trying to figure out how to compete against a really veteran team that's tough and disciplined at both ends of the court in Purdue."
The players' goal from the beginning has been an NCAA berth. So perhaps it's not surprising point guard Amaya Battle went just a little further: "I think we can be really good," she said. "We're still kind of young, and it's our first year with Dawny P. But if we stick to that process-driven mind-set we'll be OK."
So far, the Gophers are scoring more and allowing less. They are shooting better and holding teams to a lower percentage. They are taking and making more threes, turning the ball over less.
The operative words: so far. The Big Ten is another level.
Midmajor teams, even the good ones, have some good athletes. They have skilled players, especially on the perimeter. They may play a style difficult to play against. So often in the Big Ten, you get all that in one package. The Gophers saw some of that in Kentucky.
"And now we go into Purdue," Plitzuweit said. "Purdue has size, athleticism and they have some really skilled kids on top of that. That adds a whole 'nother challenge."
Will the Gophers respond?
The elements are there. Star power? Guard Mara Braun has taken another step. After a short shooting slump, Braun has scored 58 points, hit 19 of 38 shots overall and nine of 16 three-pointers in victories over Drake and Kentucky. She has hit all 29 of her free throws this season and owns a program-best streak of 36 dating back to last year. She has not registered a turnover in her past 103½ minutes of playing time.
Balance? All five starters are averaging 9.9 points per game or higher and getting 4.4 rebounds or better, led by Mallory Heyer's 8.2. The Gophers, averaging 23.4 three-point attempts per game (vs. 18.3 last season), have three three-point threats in Braun (37.5%), freshman Grace Grocholski (33.3%) and Heyer (41.0%).
"We have a lot of different scoring threats," Heyer said. "We move the ball around really well, we share it. We run a motion offense, we cut and we hit open threes."
And now they get a chance to see if they can do it in one of the country's best conferences.
"We have to continue to understand the urgency we have to play with on every possession," Plitzuweit said. "That's hard for any team. For a newer team, with a new [coaching] staff, that's something we need to continue to be better at."