The Gophers received their road map for the NCAA volleyball tournament Sunday, drawing the No. 3 seed, a first-round bye and a second-round match against Georgia Tech or Lipscomb. It will be awhile, though, before they start the journey.
The 48-team tournament will be held entirely in Omaha, beginning with first-round matches April 14. The Gophers start play a day later, giving them a 12-day break between the end of the regular season and their tournament opener. In a normal year, they would have begun NCAA play this week, at a campus site, in a 64-team field with no byes.
But the No. 3 Gophers have gotten used to adjusting on the fly in this COVID-muddled season. So have the other top seeds — No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 4 Texas — and four additional Big Ten teams that made the field. Under the circumstances, Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon wasn't sweating the details.
"I'm extremely proud of the team,'' McCutcheon said. "The ability week in and week out to step on the court and compete is something I think we probably took for granted a year and a half ago. There's just so much effort that's gone into getting everybody ready to go.
"It feels pretty special to have come through a really rigorous season, playing a schedule as tough as anybody in our conference, and be rewarded with a high seed. We're looking forward to the next phase of the season."
The Gophers (15-2) ended the regular season last weekend with two 3-0 victories over Iowa. They finished second in the Big Ten, behind top-ranked Wisconsin (15-0), and went 5-2 against ranked opponents.
With the NCAA tournament field reduced by 25% because of COVID-19, the top 16 seeds will get first-round byes. All six Big Ten teams that made the field will bypass the first round. Nebraska drew the No. 5 seed, Purdue is No. 7, Ohio State is No. 9 and Penn State is No. 13.
The tournament begins with the first and second rounds April 14 -15, followed by the regional semifinals and finals April 18-19. The national semifinals are April 22, and the NCAA championship game is April 24. All matches will be played at Omaha's CHI Health Center, a large complex that includes a convention center and arena.
The task of choosing the field was more complicated than usual this year. With 30 conference champions receiving automatic bids, there were only 18 at-large selections, 14 fewer than usual. Most conferences did not play teams outside their leagues, making it difficult for the 10-person selection committee to make comparisons.
T.J. Meagher, chairman of the Division I women's volleyball committee, said the group relied on advice from regional advisory committees composed of coaches from around the country. "The experts and the coaches, we looked at them very closely and asked them to really do their best with helping us,'' Meagher said on ESPNU.
No. 23 Georgia Tech (13-4) earned an at-large bid after finishing fourth in the ACC. Lipscomb (17-2) made the field as the ASUN conference tournament champion and has won 11 consecutive matches.
The Gophers have won four in a row, dropping only one set. While awaiting their tournament opener, McCutcheon said they will put the time to good use.
"We'll try to add a few layers, get to work on a few things,'' he said. "It will give us a chance to hit our stride, hopefully, by the time we get to Omaha."