Like any evolutionary process, the Gophers volleyball season has come in fits and starts. The individual talent level is so high that even when progress stalls, magic could arise.

But, in a lovely fit of timing, as they prepare to play in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, the Gophers seem to have found another level. And they have found it together.

They will need to keep it that way, because nothing comes easy in December.

"From the beginning [of the season] it was never, 'We're going out there, we're going to win,' " freshman middle blocker Carter Booth said. "It was, 'We're going to build a foundation, we're going to do the recipe right and then the winning will follow.'

"We did come in here and tear down everything we knew before and built up from ground zero. We have put in the work. We have proved that we deserve to be here."

And now things get heavy.

Thursday brings a rubber match with No. 3 seed Ohio State, a dominant, talent-laden program that had sights on a Big Ten title until a stumbling, four-game losing streak in late November. The teams split two regular-season matches, with Ohio State winning in Minnesota on Oct. 12 and the Gophers turning the tables Nov. 25.

It will be decided in a morning matchup at Gregory Gym in Austin, Texas (11 a.m., ESPN2), that will double as a battle of the best volleyball players in the Big Ten.

Gophers outside hitter Taylor Landfair was the conference Player of the Year while Buckeyes libero Kylie Murr was the Defensive Player of the Year and Mac Podraza was the Setter of the Year.

Add to that: Gophers setter Melani Shaffmaster and Booth were also first-team All-Big Ten, as was Ohio State hitter Emily Londot.

If there is a better matchup in the sport — and in a stellar showcase for collegiate volleyball every Sweet 16 matchup will be played Thursday — it is merely by degrees.

"It's like I'm born for this," said Gophers middle blocker Arica Davis, who transferred from Ohio State in the offseason. "You know the energy is going to be crazy. This is a big game. All the more reason why this is something we have been reaching for, preparing for, all year."

The Gophers have found a rotation. Landfair, Shaffmaster and hitter Jenna Wenaas never leave the court. Freshman outside hitter Mckenna Wucherer is back healthy and rotates into the front-row attack. Davis and Booth do the same at the net on the middle block. Defensive and service specialists CC McGraw, Rachel Kilkelly and Elise McGhie anchor the back row.

Right now that group is telepathic.

Any opponent preparing to face this Minnesota team is looking at a bunch of not great options.

Keep your eyes on Shaffmaster as she passes to middles like Booth and Davis early to seek out patterns and weaknesses in the Buckeyes defense. Then watch as she exploits that later to line up hitters like Landfair, Wenaas and Wucherer at the pins on the outside of the net. That flow creates gaps. Those gaps are where the Gophers, the best-hitting team in Big Ten play, decimate opponents.

But this year brings a new wrinkle, because if the offense falters, the defense remains.

The Gophers' 2.9 blocks per set matches the best mark of any team under coach Hugh McCutcheon and their opponent hitting percentage of .177 ranks second. It is a collective effort.

Booth, Davis, Landfair, Wenaas, Wucherer and Shaffmaster all can level an opponent attack at the net. McGraw and Kilkelly have found their reads off those blocks and can dig with anyone in college volleyball.

McCutcheon said after defeating Northern Iowa in the second round of the tournament that systematic balance means the team can create something crucial: momentum.

"The idea that we're building energy, one good play leading to another good play, leading to another good play," he said. "I think that's what you want."

Everyone knows their role and can cover for teammates who go out on a ledge trying to push their limit.

"We know that we are an incredibly talented group," Booth said. "Any one of us out on the court or on the sideline can step onto that court and impact the game.

"Having that many weapons by your side, I would say, really does make you feel safe because you know you can go out there and take a risk and be aggressive and it is not going to be the end of the world."

Not even close. In some ways, the Gophers feel like their world is only just beginning to dawn.