The way Hugh McCutcheon sees it, being part of a conference as rugged as the Big Ten can shape a team in two ways. “It’s a grind,’’ the Gophers coach said. “And it can either polish you up or wear you down.’’
Though Friday’s loss at Penn State denied the Gophers an unbeaten Big Ten season, they earned the prize they really wanted Sunday: a No. 2 seed in the NCAA volleyball tournament. The Gophers (25-3, 19-1 Big Ten) will host the first and second rounds of the tournament this weekend, opening play Friday against Bryant. South Carolina and Colorado will play the other first-round game at Maturi Pavilion, with the winners meeting Saturday in the second round.
By virtue of capturing a top-four seed, the Gophers’ road map to a national championship will not leave Minneapolis. If they win both matches this weekend, they will host the regional semifinal and final on Dec. 7-8, followed by the Final Four at Target Center on Dec. 13 and 15.
McCutcheon’s point about the Big Ten was underscored when the 64-team tournament bracket was announced Sunday. Seven league teams made the field, with two — the Gophers and third-seeded Illinois — earning top-four seeds. Wisconsin (No. 6), Nebraska (No. 7) and Penn State (No. 8) also were seeded, while Michigan and Purdue also were awarded at-large berths.
“We’re pretty happy we don’t have to pack a bag,’’ McCutcheon said. “We’ve got work to do now.
“There’s no doubt that being in the Pav will help. Home-court advantage is a real thing. We’re excited to try to be here as long as we can.’’
The Gophers also were the No. 2 seed — the highest in program history — in both 2015 and 2016, when they advanced to the Final Four.
Their portion of the tournament bracket includes No. 17 Oregon, one of three teams to defeat them during the regular season; sixth-ranked Nebraska; and No. 11 Kentucky.
This season, the Gophers are 14-0 at Maturi Pavilion, earning a perfect regular-season record on their home court for the third time in the past four years. They are 59-2 at home since the start of the 2015 season.
McCutcheon said the Gophers were not disappointed by Friday’s five-set loss at No. 7 Penn State, which ended a 19-match win streak. An undefeated league season was never their goal, and senior Samantha Seliger-Swenson called the hard-fought loss “a good reality check’’ that will illuminate some things the team needs to tune up before the tournament.
The loss Friday night was the first for the Gophers since Sept. 9.
With no real stake in the outcome after already securing the Big Ten title, McCutcheon said, he was proud of the Gophers’ stout effort against the Nittany Lions. The Gophers rebounded with a sweep at Rutgers on Saturday to conclude the regular season.
“As much as we enjoy winning, we know it can mask a lot of problems,’’ the coach said. “Having to feel the sting of defeat before we go into this phase of the season, I can’t imagine that’s going to be a bad thing.’’
His hope now is that the daily grind of the Big Ten season has properly polished his team for a long tournament run.
“That’s the beauty of our conference,’’ McCutcheon said. “We’ve gone through some big moments. We’ve had a lot of big matches; we played Wisconsin twice, Nebraska twice, Penn State twice.
“I feel like we’re a little bit battle-tested. We understand this is a different format. You lose, and you’re done. But I think the athletes’ ability to respond should be better than most.’’
Bryant (22-12), located in Smithfield, R.I., earned its first NCAA Division I tournament berth by winning the Northeast Conference championship.