Last matches can help Minn. build tourney résumé

The Gophers host Northwestern and No. 5 Illinois in crucial matches.

by Aleutian Calabay

The No. 13 Minnesota volleyball team will finish their regular season this weekend in two games with big NCAA Tournament implications. With a record of 22-8 overall and 13-5 in the Big Ten, it is not a question of if Minnesota is going to make the NCAA tournament, but how high will they be seeded. The Gophers have a final chance to boost their tournament seeding when they host Northwestern on Friday and No. 5 Illinois on Saturday. Both matches are at the Sports Pavilion and start at 7 p.m. With the brackets still up in the air, it’s difficult to postulate exactly where the Gophers look to fall in terms of seeding. But a pair of wins this weekend would very likely ensure a top-16 seed. “I think we have a lot of excitement,” Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert said. “We’ve played all season long to get a post-season opportunity. In our case, we’re not just going to make the tournament. If we play well and win this weekend, we’re going to be rewarded with a good seed, and that’s exciting.” Winning this weekend, however, will be no easy task as both Northwestern and Illinois come in looking to improve their stance in the tournament. Northwestern (16-14 overall, 7-11 Big Ten ) is a team on the bubble for the tournament. They face the Illini on Wednesday before coming to Minnesota, and with a current RPI of 59 , the Wildcats will most likely need to win at least one if not both of their matches to make it into the tournament. Being a team playing for their playoff lives makes Northwestern a dangerous opponent. Illinois (23-4, 15-3 ), stands at the other end of the tournament spectrum. Having already locked up second place in the Big Ten, and as No. 4 in the RPI , the Illini will be coming to Minnesota looking to impress tournament judges enough to earn a top seed. “These are two teams that are going to be hungry, and in Northwestern’s case probably desperate,” Hebert said. “That’s not going to be an easy matchup for us [against Northwestern]. If they lose to Illinois then their only chance for making the tournament is to beat us, so that’s going to be a challenge.âÄù While tournament seeding may only be one source of motivation for Minnesota, they will also be looking for payback against Illinois for the three-set defeat they were dealt in mid-October. That match changed the season’s fortunes for both teams as Minnesota was ranked No. 6 and Illinois was No. 10 when the teams originally met. Since then the Gophers have fallen back seven spots in the rankings, while the Illini continued to climb in the Big Ten, losing only to Penn State as they made their way to No. 5 in the country. The loss to Illinois, however, was on the road, and the Gophers have been nearly unbeatable at home all season. The lone exception being to Penn State, who beat everyone both at home and on the road as they continued yet another undefeated season. “They [Illinois] are a very good all-around team,” senior Christine Tan said . “They’re a team that’s played together for a long time and are very used to playing around each other. âÄúI played with some of them over the summer on the USA training team and I know what they’re capable of, but at the same time I know what our team is capable of. Especially playing at home where we only have one loss, that’s going make a big difference.”