At 22-5 overall and 12-2 in the Big Ten, Minnesota’s volleyball team is all but in the NCAA tournament. It would take nuclear fallout for the 20th-ranked Gophers to be left out of the field of 64.
So why so much concern about the final six matches?
One word: seeding.
Only the top 16 teams will be able to host first and second-round matches. Those 16 will be determined by the selection committee, not the polls.
Minnesota is on the bubble, so a strong showing down the stretch will be important. The only problem is that the Gophers’ flight to the finish will not come easy.
“We definitely get into more turbulent airspace here over the next three weeks,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said.
The bumpy matches include one with top-ranked Penn State, as well as five more teams that are all fighting to join the Gophers in the tournament.
“All six of these teams are either going to be in the NCAA tournament or close to it,” Hebert said. “Right now all of them have a realistic aspiration.”
Hebert added that he thinks Purdue, Ohio State, Indiana and possibly Illinois will especially be gunning for Minnesota in hopes of attracting the attention from the NCAA selection committee.
“They are all thinking they need to beat us to solidify their chances to be in the tournament,” he said.
Freshman Lisa Axel said the Gophers will use the remainder of the regular season — starting tonight — as preparation for the tourney.
“We just want to keep playing better volleyball so when we get to the NCAA we’ll be at our peak,” Axel said.
Minnesota visits Purdue (14-9, 6-8 Big Ten) — one of those teams fighting for a postseason berth — tonight in West Lafayette.
The Gophers dispatched the Boilermakers in three games at the Sports Pavilion in September, so Purdue will be looking for revenge.
As will Wisconsin, the Gophers’ opponent on Saturday in Madison. Minnesota defeated the Badgers in four games at home during the opening Big Ten weekend. The match was an upset at the time.
Since the Gophers defeated their border rivals, Minnesota has been hot in the conference. But Wisconsin (16-8, 9-5) comes in playing solid volleyball as well.
The Badgers find themselves alone in third place in the Big Ten, but hope to continue their dominance over Minnesota in Madison. The Gophers have not escaped Wisconsin with a win since 1995.
With an NCAA appearance on the horizon for both teams, Hebert said he would like to see his team fend off Wisconsin and finish second in the Big Ten. That’s assuming Penn State doesn’t roll over and die, allowing the Gophers to finish first.
“We’re playing for not just a seed in the NCAA tournament,” Hebert said, “but what a tremendous feather in our cap it would be if we could hold on and finish in second.”
Especially because the Gophers were picked to finish sixth before the season started.
“That would mean a lot to us, to prove that many people that wrong,” Hebert said.
But to finish second in the Big Ten, Minnesota will have to overcome a number of injuries.
Junior middle blocker Heather Baxter appears to be lost for the season with an injured shoulder. Another junior — outside hitter Lisa Aschenbrenner — is also experiencing shoulder pain and is not expected to play this weekend.
Axel and senior Linda Shudlick both missed last Sunday’s win over Wisconsin-Green Bay, and missed practice all week, but they’re expected to be ready to go this weekend.
But even with injuries and a tough remaining schedule ahead, Hebert likes the Gophers’ chances.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’re thrilled to be in this position,” Hebert said. “But this is not a bed of roses we’re facing here.”
John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]