Gophers prepared for NCAA opening round

Minnesota will face Radford and could face either Colorado State or Iowa State.

Gophers middle blocker Tori Dixon prepares to spike the ball against Penn State on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, at the Sports Pavilion.

Bridget Bennett

Gophers middle blocker Tori Dixon prepares to spike the ball against Penn State on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, at the Sports Pavilion.

David Nelson

After 20 grueling conference matches against 11 formidable opponents, the Gophers have reached the last stage of their season.

The NCAA tournament is the culmination of a team’s hard work throughout the season.

“We certainly feel battle-tested and battle-ready,” head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “That’s one of the huge advantages of playing in such a tough conference.”

The demanding Big Ten schedule revealed the good and exposed the bad — something McCutcheon sees as an advantage.

“[There were] lots of opportunities to improve,” he said. “[Our] weaknesses have been exploited … and we’ve had a chance to shore those up.”

This year, the uncertainty in the team’s lineup was a major weakness early.

“A year ago … we were very set right from the beginning of the season in terms of who was going to play,” McCutcheon said. “This year, we’ve had a bigger squad, more depth, more competition.”

McCutcheon said the added competition in practice has been “wonderful,” despite the uncertainty in the lineup.

“You get to earn the right to stand on the floor and wear the maroon and gold,” McCutcheon said.

Senior Tori Dixon said she’s felt more comfortable with the talent ready to go behind her.

“That’s been one of our strengths all season,” Dixon said. “[We have] a large bench to come in … and make an impact whenever we need them.”

McCutcheon said he’s been impressed with the underclassmen’s development this season.

“You would expect freshmen would have a significant learning curve,” McCutcheon said, “but they’ve responded to the adversity. … We’re seeing the fruits of that now.”

Those fruits have allowed the Gophers to switch schemes late in the year — a switch that helped them win their last four matches.

The team has shifted from a one-setter system to a two-setter system down the stretch.

“That’s shored up our blocking defense … [and] I think it’s harder for teams to scout us now,” McCutcheon said.

Radford, a Virginia school with about 44,000 fewer students than Minnesota, will be the first team the Gophers face Friday night.

Despite playing in the smaller Big South conference, Radford is a team McCutcheon said the Gophers cannot overlook.

“It’s tempting, I think, for lots of people to be dismissive of these first-round opponents,” McCutcheon said, “but I assure you, we won’t be.”

This weekend marks the fifth time in the last six years the Sports Pavilion will host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The Gophers, who hold an 11-2 record in that building this season, are happy to play at home.

“It’s an advantage for us,” senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman said. “We have a great home crowd.”

If the Gophers beat Radford on Friday night, they will play the winner of the Colorado-Iowa State match Saturday.

Wittman said it won’t matter who Minnesota plays.

“I think everyone’s focused and ready to go,” Wittman said. “We’re just going to step on the floor and do what we need to do.”