When asked if her basketball team started practice healthy on Tuesday, Lindsay Whalen looked at her watch to check the date.

“Yeah, for the most part,” she said. “What is it, September?”

OK, point taken, but nothing about the Gophers’ health was a given last season, when the team battled not only COVID-19 but several injuries to key players. Only sophomore forward Klarke Sconiers played all 21 games, and starting guards Gadiva Hubbard, Jasmine Powell and Sara Scalia missed a combined 14 because of injuries.

A week before last season’s opener, Whalen said, she had three players in practice. On Tuesday, only a few of her 16 players sat out the team’s first practice. “It’s a lot different than three,” she said.

The Gophers’ goals this season: A top-half finish in the Big Ten, a long run in the conference tournament and berth in the NCAA tournament.

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“That would be, I guess, a successful year, doing all those things,” Whalen said, “and they’re capable of doing it.”

It would be a big turnaround but the Gophers showed growth last year, going 6-4 down the stretch before injuries took their toll in the final two games. In a 72-61 loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers were missing three starters — Powell, Scalia and forward Kadi Sissoku.

Everyone else, including Sconiers, now a junior, and freshmen guards Alexia Smith and Katy Borowicz, got a crash course in Big Ten basketball.

“We’re already leaps and bounds ahead of where we were,” Whalen said. “I know everybody else is, too, but it definitely feels good.”

Instant depth

In her fourth season coaching at her alma mater, Whalen returns 12 players from a young team that finished 8-13 overall, 7-11 in the Big Ten in 2020-21. They are particularly deep in the post with the return of Sconiers, Sissoku and Kayla Mershon, and the backcourt with Powerll, Scalia, Smith and Hubbard.

New are a couple of big-time freshmen and two graduate transfers that appear ready to step into key roles.

Freshman forward Allana Micheaux, a 6-foot-2 forward, was a four-star recruit who averaged 23 points and 12 rebounds at Wayne Memorial High in Detroit. Six-foot guard Maggie Czinano, whose sister Monika is an all-Big Ten forward at Iowa, averaged 22 points as a senior at Watertown-Meyer.

Whalen called Micheaux “a big presence inside for us. She’s able to step outside and shoot it a little bit, but I think right off the bat where she’s really comfortable is on the block.”

The coach also expects minutes from graduate transfers Deja Winters and Bailey Helgren. Winters was an all-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference guard at North Carolina A&T last season. “She’s somebody who’s exciting,” Whalen said, “who makes some things happen, has five years of experience (and) has some really good length.”

Bailey Helgren, a 6-5 post from Edina who averaged 5.5 rebounds at Kansas before opting out of her senior season after seven games, should play big minutes, as well.

“There’s no question we have some good experience,” Whalen said.

Tough schedule

The Gophers will play one of the tougher nonconference schedules in the country, with games scheduled against 2020-21 NCAA tournament teams UConn and North Carolina, and either South Carolina or Syracuse. UConn and South Carolina were Final Four teams.

“We have the hardest schedule in the conference,” Whalen said. “We wanted to be more battle-tested going into the Big Ten, and this year we’ll be battle-tested, there’s no question.”