This season, the Gophers have often found their circumstances changing day by day, as injuries forced them to use different lineups. Their ability to manage those challenges earned them a sweet reward Sunday: the No. 7 seed in the NCAA volleyball tournament, and an opening-round match Friday against Fairfield at Maturi Pavilion.
The eighth-ranked Gophers (23-5, 17-3 Big Ten) will play host to first- and second-round matches Friday and Saturday. Iowa State and Creighton will play Friday’s first match. Fairfield (24-5) earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said the No. 7 seed “is about right” for a team that endured constant changes to lineups and individual roles over the past two months. Big Ten champion Wisconsin earned the No. 4 seed, the highest of the seven league members to make the 64-team field. Nebraska (No. 5), Penn State (No. 11) and Purdue (No. 16) also secured top-16 seeds.
The Gophers will enter the tournament with a fully healthy roster, McCutcheon said, and gained some confidence from Saturday’s defeat of seventh-ranked Penn State on the road. That victory tied them with the Nittany Lions and Nebraska for second place in the conference and set them up for a top-eight seed.
If the Gophers win both matches this weekend, they would advance to the regional semifinals in Austin, Texas, on Dec. 13. The Final Four is Dec. 19-21 in Pittsburgh.
“For us to finish 17-3 in the conference, tied for second place, it meant a lot,” McCutcheon said. “It was a great way to finish [the regular season]. The seeding validates what we thought: That this team is pretty good after all.
“We’re kind of back to being the team we were in the [nonconference season]. There’s a little more juice. I think the team is in a good space. I think we’ll play some good volleyball.”
Top-ranked Baylor (25-1) received the No. 1 seed for the first time in program history. Texas (21-3) is the No. 2 seed, followed by Stanford (24-4) and the Badgers (22-6).
The Gophers will be making their 24th appearance in the NCAA tournament. They are 22-1 in first-round play, including 6-0 under McCutcheon.
Saturday’s four-set victory at Penn State was the third in a row for the Gophers, who are 11-2 at Maturi Pavilion this season. Senior outside hitter Alexis Hart said the team is “just getting back to getting our mojo,” now that all of its players — including setter Kylie Miller — are back in the lineup.
The Gophers had not won at Penn State since 2004. Senior middle blocker Taylor Morgan said the victory “spoke volumes” about the team, and she believes the adaptability it showed this season will serve it well during the NCAA tournament.
“It helps us out tremendously,” she said. “Not many teams can say they played under different lineups, different circumstances. That’s a competitive advantage for us.”
McCutcheon also had high praise for his team’s ability to handle less-than-ideal circumstances.
“These athletes have done a phenomenal job of just accepting their role today, knowing that tomorrow, it could be different,” he said. “A lot of our injuries were day to day, so we never even really had a firm timeline for getting people back. To their credit, they took that on and truly just played it day to day, point to point. It’s nice to see the fruits of that here at the end of the season.”
Fairfield is making its 11th appearance at the NCAA tournament and its fourth in the past five years. Iowa State (17-11) and Creighton (24-5) received at-large bids.