Regular season wraps up with 2 home matches

Minnesota could secure a seed in the NCAA Tournament with wins against unranked Wisconsin and Indiana this week.

Charlie Armitz

Much is at stake this week for the No. 19 Gophers volleyball team.

With the NCAA tournament looming and the Big Ten standings still to be determined, Minnesota (16-11, 9-9 Big Ten) will look to ride a three-match winning streak into the postseason with a pair of home wins over a pair of unranked opponents, Wisconsin and Indiana.

The Badgers (16-14, 8-10 Big Ten), who the Gophers play Wednesday, are fighting for an NCAA tournament spot and a place in the top half of the Big Ten standings. They have won three of their last five matches, including two against ranked teams âÄî Penn State on Nov. 6 and Michigan on Nov. 11.

Minnesota defeated Wisconsin in five sets in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19.

In its last match, Wisconsin won the first set against Big Ten champion Nebraska 25-12 before falling in four sets.

âÄúTheyâÄôre playing a very high level of volleyball right now,âÄù Gophers senior Hailey Cowles said. âÄúTheyâÄôre competing hard and pushing teams to the limit, so itâÄôs going to be a tough test for us.âÄù

Indiana (9-21, 1-17 Big Ten) plays the Gophers on Friday on Senior Night at the Sports Pavilion. The Hoosiers won their only conference match of the season against Iowa (1-18) on Nov. 12.

With two wins this week, the Gophers would clinch at least a sixth-place finish in the Big Ten, and possibly fifth. Minnesota finished in a tie for second place last year.

The Gophers would also increase their chances of being seeded in the NCAA tournament. Sixteen teams are seeded in the field of 64, and if Minnesota earns one of them, it will likely avoid having to play a top-tier opponent in the first or second round.

The Gophers rank 10th in Rating Percentage Index, which measures a team based on its strength of schedule and is typically the primary factor used to seed teams in the NCAA tournament. In 2010, the top 16 teams in RPI all received seeds.

âÄúThatâÄôs what theyâÄôre going to go on,âÄù Minnesota interim head coach Laura Bush said, âÄúnot on the AVCA coaches poll âÄî thatâÄôs a lot of opinion. WeâÄôve proven that we can play well against the top teams and we can win. We donâÄôt have any super-bad losses.âÄù

The tournament bracket will be announced Sunday.

For the Gophers, the last weekend of the regular season is also about improving âÄî and according to Bush and her players, thereâÄôs still plenty to do in that area.

âÄúWeâÄôre still cleaning up the stuff we consistently work on,âÄù Bush said. âÄúWeâÄôre not adding any new stuff; weâÄôre just really working on being consistent with the serving and the passing and the offense and the blocking.âÄù

While each of those parts of the game has shown improvement in recent weeks, the team has been unable to play well for an extended period of time during the grueling Big Ten schedule.

MinnesotaâÄôs longest winning streak during conference play was three âÄî which it could match with a pair of wins this weekend.

âÄúI think weâÄôre playing a little tired right now,âÄù Bush said. âÄúThatâÄôs just what I see, and weâÄôve got to work our way through that and get some new life once the NCAA tournament starts.âÄù

Cowles said the team has improved as the season has progressed, but will need to improve to contend in the postseason.

âÄúWe are very close to peaking at the right time,âÄù Cowles said. âÄúCoach is always saying weâÄôre so close to how we want to be playing âÄî a couple of little things, like one pass here or there, or one kill that was maybe an inch out.

âÄúWeâÄôre right where we want to be. ItâÄôs just getting over that last little hump.âÄù