When it comes to NCAA Sweet 16 experience, the Gophers and Pittsburgh aren't close.

Minnesota, an NCAA women's volleyball tournament mainstay during coach Hugh McCutcheon's tenure, has reached the Sweet 16 in eight of his nine seasons. All time, Minnesota has done it 18 times

Compare that to the Panthers, who will make their Sweet 16 debut at noon Sunday when they face the No. 3-seeded Gophers in Omaha.

If officials gave points for experience, Minnesota would win the match by a landslide. Experience won't hurt the Gophers, but they know they can't count on either that or their high seed to earn them a spot in the Elite Eight.

"It's hard to know, as in, I think we're operating on the assumption that somehow experience is going to be a differentiating factor," McCutcheon said. "I think at times it can be. We've also seen teams that have gotten hot and gone on a run and somehow experience didn't matter. It was about how they're playing."

That description fits Pitt well.

The Panthers are riding a winning streak that has lasted almost six months. Pitt last lost on Oct. 25 to Louisville.

Now, the Panthers haven't played matches every month since then. They didn't play again until Feb. 14, but including the win over Villanova on that day, Pitt has rattled off 14 consecutive wins. The latest victory came at the expense of No. 14 seed Utah, whom the Panthers swept 3-0.

Pitt received an at-large bid, but it's not playing like it.

"We think they're a really good team," McCutcheon said. "Personally, I think they could well have been seeded, given the run they've been on since October."

And maybe they should have been. This isn't a normal NCAA volleyball tournament because of the pandemic, and without much consistency or interconference play for volleyball teams this season, the selection committee had a difficult task. It also was unclear how much RPI played a role this year, McCutcheon said.

"Then there was the AVCA poll, which is all people speculating on how this conference adds up to this conference," he said, referring to them American Volleyball Coaches Association ratings. "While we were happy with the No. 3 seed, I don't think we feel that's defining us."

So, the Gophers will tell you not to pay much attention to the seeding and get ready for what McCutcheon thinks is the round where some of the best volleyball of the tournament is played.

Redshirt senior middle blocker Regan Pittman expects Pitt to present a physical, well-rounded challenge, but she expressed confidence in being able to counter that Sunday.

"Pitt has some really big arms, and they're going to get some really big swings and really big blocks," Pittman said, "but so are we."

Often that power and big-play ability is needed, and the Gophers are no strangers to either. But other times, spectacular isn't necessarily better.

"Tipping a ball to the corner and playing smart is the same point as hitting a ball to the 10-foot line," Pittman said.

Knowing how to manage the big plays, Pittman said, is where she sees Minnesota's experience becoming helpful.

"Often, when you get down to the Sweet 16 and down, it really depends on a point here and a point there," she said. "Just being able to breath and understand that points are points and none are bigger than others."