Spikers can win Big Ten title outright

Minnesota plays host to Indiana and Ohio State at the Sports Pavilion

Ben Goessling

After beating Michigan State in four games and clinching a tie for the first Big Ten title in its 30-year history last Saturday, Minnesota’s volleyball team assembled in the Jenison Field House locker room and finally allowed itself to reflect on its accomplishments.

For about 10 minutes.

“When we clinch outright, I’m sure the players will have more to say,” coach Mike Hebert said. “Plus, it was kind of cold in that locker room, and we wanted to get on the bus.”

Forgive the sixth-ranked Gophers for not being more mindful of the moment. They really don’t know any better.

The closest this youthful group has come to a Big Ten conference championship is through hearing the war stories of their coach, who won four during his 13-year tenure at the helm of Illinois’ volleyball team.

And Hebert isn’t about to wax nostalgic, not with four matches left in the conference season.

“Three of the four teams we play are fighting for an NCAA berth, and they all want wins over us,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll play the same as we have all season.”

Minnesota (28-3, 15-1 Big Ten) plays host to Indiana and Ohio State at the Sports Pavilion this weekend, hoping to clinch the conference title outright. Minnesota can win the title with a win or a Penn State loss, while bursting a pair of NCAA tournament bubbles.

After starting the conference season 0-5, No. 25 Ohio State (15-10, 9-7) has rebounded to move into a tie for fourth in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes are ranked 30th in the Ballicora Computer Rankings, a system that mimics the formula used by the NCAA to select its championship bracket.

Of teams that are not currently leading their conference and would likely seek at-large bids, the Buckeyes rank 20th in the rankings. Thirty-three of the 64 spots in the NCAA tournament are given to at-large teams.

While a loss or two could send Ohio State back to the fringe of the tournament picture, a win over the Gophers would guarantee the Buckeyes at least a .500 record in the conference, meaning Ohio State can essentially pack its bags with a win Saturday night.

The Hoosiers, on the other hand, are in more dire straits.

Indiana (18-10, 8-8) is 45th in the rankings and 35th among at-large teams, which means it is likely on the outside looking in. The Hoosiers would probably require a 2-2 finish to reach the tournament.

As with Ohio State, a win over Minnesota might make Indiana’s season.

“Those teams would gain a lot of ground (in the selection committee’s eyes) if they beat us,” Hebert said. “We want to keep them out, so I don’t think we’ll have any trouble focusing.”

Playing the role of spoiler is Minnesota’s only motivation this weekend. As has been the case all season, Hebert told his team to ignore its own fate and put all the talk of the postseason to rest after last Saturday’s brief celebration.

“We’re not thinking about (tournament) seedings much. We’ll pretty much stay with the formula,” Hebert said. “Sorry, it’s not very exciting.”

But for a team that rewards 30 seasons of work with 10 minutes of celebration, would you expect anything else?