MADISON, WIS. — There is no long-term planning for volleyball teams in the NCAA tournament. It is point-to-point, set-to-set, match-to-match.
Still, when the Gophers were named the No. 12 overall seed and the bracket was released two weeks ago, one couldn't help noticing that their path could potentially include three opponents they had already faced this season.
One possibility loomed larger than most. Navigate a treacherous first three rounds and Minnesota could get a shot at Wisconsin, the No. 4 overall seed and regional host.
"We were pretty close to the Badgers last time we played them," coach Hugh McCutcheon told the assembled crowd that night. "I wouldn't mind having another crack at them."
Saturday's regional final at the UW Field House will be the third contest this season between the rivals. Wisconsin swept the Gophers in Madison in October and the two teams played one of the best matches of the year three weeks ago when Wisconsin won again, this time in five sets at Maturi Pavilion.
But the two teams have never met in the NCAA tournament, let alone in a matchup of this magnitude, with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
When Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield was working his way up through the ranks, there was nothing he enjoyed more than the kind of event his team will participate in on Saturday night.
Of course, Sheffield enjoyed it differently back then.
"Chicken wings, chips, salsa, everything," he said. "I would just be sitting on the couch being an absolute slob and never having more fun ever than watching."
Sheffield didn't make it this far in the tournament until his first season as Badgers coach in 2013, when they lost to Penn State for the NCAA championship. His teams have now reached six regional finals, three Final Fours and two title matches during his tenure.
The Gophers have been comparably lethal under McCutcheon. This is their fifth regional final since he took over in 2012. They have also reached three Final Fours in that time.
"It's two teams that are familiar with each other, right? Last time we played it was an epic match. It was just great volleyball on both sides," Sheffield said. "It's a program that we have a lot of respect for. A lot of experience on that side of the net, we have a lot of experience on our side of the net."
Gophers libero CC McGraw said looking back to that five-set loss in November, one thing really stuck out. Minnesota trailed 7-1 in the first set, 8-2 in the second and 9-1 in the third. They won the first and third sets, but it was laborious.
"We somehow managed to fight back in every single set," she said. "But if we're able to start from the beginning, we'll be in a much better position to be successful, and we won't have to be pulling out of the trenches every single time."
Easing the grind will be the goal, but it will not be simple for either side. The talent is simply too deep.
Minnesota features the Big Ten Player of the Year in Stephanie Samedy. Wisconsin has the Setter of the Year in Champlin Park product Sydney Hilley and the Freshman of the Year in outside hitter Julia Orzol. On top of that, McGraw was first team All-Big Ten, as was Badgers middle blocker Dana Rettke.
The second team included Gophers outside hitter Jenna Wenaas and Badgers libero Lauren Barnes and middle blocker Devyn Robinson.
"Both teams have thoroughbreds on their rosters," Sheffield said. "It should just be incredibly entertaining."
The Gophers dominated the rivalry from 2008 to '18, winning 19 of 22 matches. The Badgers haven't lost to Minnesota since, claiming each of the past five. But three of those past four matches have gone five sets and Hilley, the Badgers' star setter who graduated from Champlin Park, expects nothing less Saturday.
"Playing them is always fun, always a competitive game. I'm expecting it goes to five [sets], extra points every set because that's just the kind of team that they are," she said. "It's going to be a battle, but it's going to be a really fun one."
As the Gophers convened for practice on Friday, McGraw said, they stayed focused on a mantra that has invigorated the season.
"This is about us," she said. "Whatever they're doing — they have a lot of emotion, they'll yell and scream and holler — but at the end of the day this is about us. ... We know we're talented enough to play good over time, and that's going to be enough."
On Thursday night as the Badgers were sweeping UCLA in the Sweet 16, nearly 7,000 fans were packed inside the Field House, which turns 91 years old this weekend. Two floors beneath the action, you could feel the building rattle during key points.
And that was just the appetizer.
Get your chicken wings, chips, salsa, everything. It's time for another crack.