One of the measures of a quality program is that, when you lose, everyone's surprised.
On Sunday, the Gophers volleyball team took a No. 5 ranking and a 12-match road winning streak into a rematch with No. 4 Nebraska.
On Friday, the Gophers beat Nebraska in Lincoln in four sets to remain unbeaten. If the Gophers were ever going to lose, Sunday figured to be a logical place and time — facing a quality team bent on revenge, on the road, after sitting around a hotel for a couple of days.
So Nebraska's three-set victory on Sunday shouldn't have been surprising. But it was, because of the Gophers' decades-long run of sustained excellence.
Nebraska won 25-17, 25-15, 25-22. The 15 points the Gophers scored in the second set marked a season low.
The Gophers had lost only eight sets all season before Sunday. They are 9-1, including 4-0 at home, and will face Michigan on Friday and Saturday at Maturi Pavilion.
Sunday, the Gophers were missing outside hitter Adanna Rollins, and when Nebraska focused on limiting Gophers star Stephanie Samedy, the Gophers looked uncharacteristically erratic.
They served poorly, hit a low percentage and had trouble blocking Nebraska's talented front line.
"I think we'll get some lessons learned and we'll move on," Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "Hard to imagine you'll run the gamut in a Big Ten season where you're playing back to back against the best teams in the country right now.
"For us, as tough as it is to lose a match, I think the sting will fade. I do think there's a really good opportunity here for us to learn some lessons midseason vs. maybe waiting until the end of it."
Watching the Gophers on Sunday provided a reminder of what a dynamic sport volleyball is, and what a pleasant counterpart it is to so many other modern sports.
In a mostly empty arena, there was no fake crowd noise. You could hear the players talking, if faintly, on the Big Ten Network. There were no screaming announcers or in-game advertisements. Each block was not sponsored by a Realtor, each hit was not sponsored by a radio station.
Then there were the coaches. Neither screamed at his players or the officials. Both wore their masks throughout, meaning they should be the stars of a video sent to every college basketball coach in the country, all of those "leaders" who think it's a good idea to pull down their mask every time they scream at a player or ref.
Only half a million Americans have died from the coronavirus. Why should these "leaders" take that seriously?
The broadcast also provided a reminder of how fast and explosive the game is at high levels. It's geometry calculated in milliseconds, faster-than-the-speed-of-sound smashes only occasionally defeating the defense's deft choreography.
As McCutcheon said, Big Ten volleyball is the best in the country. Wisconsin is ranked No. 1. Nebraska is No. 4, Minnesota is No. 5, Penn State is No. 8 and Purdue is No. 11.
Mike Hebert built a strong program in the 1990s and 2000s, and McCutcheon has taken the Gophers to two Final Fours in the past four seasons.
They weren't at their best on Sunday. "I thought we were uncharacteristically high-error in a few phases of the game,'' McCutcheon said. "By the time you hit a few out and serve a few out, it gets a lot harder against a team playing as well as Nebraska did."
Even in defeat, Samedy provided a stinging reminder of her power. In the third set, she powered a hit toward the middle and caught Nebraska's Nicklin Hames in the face. Hames needed a few moments to collect herself before she could continue.
These are remarkable athletes. So while March Madness rages, remember that one of Minnesota's best teams will be navigating a fraught schedule at Maturi Pavilion and around the Big Ten. You could do far worse for entertainment options, in a pandemic or not.
The Star Tribune columnist did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.
Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org