NCAA tourney looms as Gophers end Big Ten play

Minnesota would likely secure a tournament seed with road wins this weekend.

Megan Ryan

The Gophers wind down their Big Ten season against weaker competition this week.

Minnesota will play its last two conference matches Wednesday at Wisconsin and Saturday at Indiana.

The NCAA tournament selections will be announced Sunday, and Minnesota will likely solidify a top-16 seed and home-court advantage for the first two rounds with wins this weekend.

“If anything, there’s a strong sense of what’s to come,” head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “We’re trying to prepare for the NCAA tournament, and I think along with that comes a sense of urgency to make sure that we’re maximizing every opportunity to get better.”

But McCutcheon said he is advising his team to not worry about the tournament seed.

“We can’t get too wrapped up in the selection criteria when we really have no control over it,” McCutcheon said.

The Badgers are 5-13 in the conference, and the Hoosiers are 4-14. The Gophers swept the Badgers during the teams’ last border battle a month ago.

Indiana is the only Big Ten team Minnesota has yet to play.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” junior setter Alexandra Palmer said of playing Indiana. “That’s what we’re going to be seeing in the tournament. We’re going to be playing new teams for the first time.”

Junior middle blocker Tori Dixon said while Indiana will be a new challenge, she still remembers its style of play from previous seasons.

“I know they’re pretty scrappy, and they’re really good at [defense],” Dixon said. “They can get on some big runs if you let them.”

Minnesota is tied for second in the Big Ten with Nebraska and Ohio State at 13-5. Penn State has already locked up the conference title.

This week could break the second-place tie — at least partially.

The Huskers play Northwestern (5-13) and Iowa (2-16) at home. The Buckeyes have a tougher schedule, as they face the Nittany Lions (17-1) and Michigan (9-9) at home.

But Palmer said the team isn’t concerned with its conference ranking as it prepares for this weekend’s matches.

“It’s a chance to prove ourselves as a top team and also just another chance to get better,” Palmer said. “And that’s ultimately what we want going into the tournament.”