Throughout the regular season, Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon never paused to reflect on the significance of what his team was accomplishing. Sunday evening — when it added another milestone to a remarkable season — he gave himself a moment to celebrate before looking ahead.
The Gophers received the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, the highest in their history, and will open the tournament Friday against Jackson State (15-21) in a first-round match at the Sports Pavilion. They are the top seed in the Des Moines region, which also includes No. 7 seed Penn State, No. 10 Texas A&M and No. 15 Louisville.
The announcement of their place in the 64-team field set off cheers at a viewing party at Williams Arena, where the players sported their new Big Ten championship caps. The Gophers (26-4) locked up their first Big Ten title since 2002 on Saturday, and their second ever, with a victory at Indiana to close the regular season.
Marquette (21-11) will play Northern Iowa (19-14) in Friday’s first match at the Sports Pavilion. The winners meet in a second-round match Saturday for the right to advance to the regionals on Dec. 11-12 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
“The word I used yesterday was ‘surreal,’ ’’ said McCutcheon, whose team finished 18-2 in the Big Ten to earn the best league mark in its history. “There were so many great matches, so many unbelievable performances.
“When the dust settles, when we’re all done with 2015, I think we can all step away from this year with a great deal of pride and satisfaction. That being said, we’re not done yet.’’
USC earned the No. 1 seed in the tournament, with Texas No. 3 and Nebraska No. 4. Nine Big Ten teams made the field. Wisconsin (No. 6) and Ohio State (No. 12) also are seeded in the top 16, and Illinois, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan earned berths in the tournament as well. The Gophers’ 3-1 victory at Indiana gave them the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament as well as the conference title. They have lost only once in their past 18 matches, a run that included a school-record 15-match win streak in Big Ten play.
They are 13-0 at the Sports Pavilion this season.
Jackson State earned its berth in the tournament by winning the SWAC tournament championship Sunday. The Tigers began the season 0-18, winning only six sets in those matches, but are 15-3 since then.
“It’s been amazing,’’ Gophers senior outside hitter Daly Santana said. “We didn’t just put in hard work this season.
‘‘It took a lot of hard work during a long period of time. This is a nice reward, but we’re also focused on what we want to do from now on.
“I think our best is yet to come. We keep getting better every day.’’