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Chris Hewitt | St. Paul Pioneer Press | November 29, 2016

Five reasons why Minnesota could win it all this year

  The No. 2-seeded Gophers open the NCAA tournament with a matchup against North Dakota Friday night.

All-Big Ten Conference middle blocker Hannah Tapp was the one who decided to go there during a news conference early this season, saying: "I came to Minnesota to win a national championship."

The Gophers (25-4), ranked No. 1 in the final coaches' poll and seeded second overall in the NCAA tournament, begin their push to a national championship this week. They will face University of North Dakota (26-9) at 7 p.m. Friday at the Sports Pavilion, where they would play all four of their pre-Final Four tournament matches if they keep winning. 

RELATED: 2016 DI volleyball interactive bracket

In addition to Minnesota and North Dakota, the sub-regional features Southern California (18-13) and a familiar foe in Hawaii (22-5), whom the Gophers beat last season to advance to the Final Four. USC and Hawaii play at 5:30 p.m. Friday.

The subregional will be something of a reunion of Gopher setters, starting with Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who was named Big Ten setter of the year Tuesday. The team's backup, Erica Handley, also will be there, along with former setter Katie Schau, who has shifted to being a defensive specialist. So will Mia Tabberson, a player on the Gophers team that advanced to the Final Four in 2009, who is now an assistant coach at North Dakota, and Lindsey Berg, the Gophers' setter from 1999-2001 who is now an assistant coach for Hawaii. Berg knows Gopher coach Hugh McCutcheon well -- as a player, she captained the team he coached to a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics.

They're all watching tape and practicing this week, with an eye toward the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 17-19. As the Gophers prepare, here are five things to watch for as the team enters the 64-team NCAA tournament:


Whereas some top teams rely on one fantastic player -- Ohio State, for instance, is virtually the Taylor Sandbothe show -- the Gophers have a balanced attack, with all five of their hitters averaging better than 1.7 kills per set. Sarah Wilhite, the national player of the week and Big Ten player of the year, leads the team with 4.14, followed by Alexis Hart (2.86), Hannah Tapp (2.72), Paige Tapp (1.97) and Molly Lohman (1.7).

RELATED: Sarah Wilhite captures AVCA National Player of the Week honors

Setter Samantha Seliger Swenson's ability to spread the offense around means the Gophers can weather a player's occasional off night. When Hannah Tapp faltered on offense last week against Nebraska and Wisconsin, twin sister Paige Tapp responded with the most dominating week of her four years at Minnesota, including a career-high 21 kills and .594 hitting percentage against the Badgers. That balance makes the Gophers tougher to defend.


Speaking of errors, reigning American Volleyball Coaches Association coach-of-the-year Hugh McCutcheon's system, which is built around minimizing mistakes, took the team to the Final Four last season and could do it again. The Gophers have plenty of offensive firepower -- Wilhite is a national player-of-the-year candidate -- but they deploy their big guns judiciously and, if it looks like the kill isn't there at any given point, the Gophers are adept at keeping the ball in play until they can blast it or their opponents make mistakes.

One play early in the fourth set against Wisconsin on Saturday summed up how effectively the players execute this system and wear down opponents. Wilhite was set four times during the same point: a powerful attempt that was blocked back by the Badgers, a well-placed shot without much heat that the Badgers returned, a ball Wilhite placed to avoid the block but that Wisconsin returned again and, finally, when Wilhite saw the block in front of her on her fourth attempt was not well-formed, she banged it in between the upraised hands of two Badgers.

Adding up attacks, serves, blocks and service reception, Minnesota is the lowest-error team in the conference, and it's not even close. For example, the Gophers are the only Big Ten team with more service aces than errors, and their total number of serve errors, 94, is half the number committed by the next lowest team, Nebraska (190), even though the Gophers have more aces than the Cornhuskers, the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed.

If the Gophers can get past North Dakota, whom they beat 3-1 in September, they will need to serve tough to keep the ball away from Hawaii's tall front line. Expected to beat USC in Friday's opening round, the Rainbow Wahine are led by another candidate for national player of the year, 6-foot-4 right-side hitter Nikki Taylor, who hammered 23 kills in last year's meeting with Minnesota.


The Gophers lost just one of last year's Final Four players to graduation but she was a big loss: 2015 Big Ten player of the year Daly Santana, who was not only the most effective attacker on the team but also its best passer, server and floor leader. Many wondered how the Gophers would respond, and the answer is that they have not missed a beat, led by Wilhite, who has improved from 2.56 kills per set last year to 4.14.

Not only is she taking 50 percent more swings this season, she's hitting more effectively, raising her percentage (similar to a baseball player's batting average) from .247 last year to .294 this season. And Wilhite is returning serve better, despite getting the ball served to her twice as often. Long story short: Losing Santana's total of 5.07 points per set (which also includes blocking and serving numbers) meant the Gophers needed Eden Prairie's Wilhite to step up big time, and she has, currently averaging 4.64 total points per set.


Every team in the country wants to play at home but none more than the Gophers, whose 32 straight victories in the Pav, stretching back to October 2014, are Division I's longest home winning streak.

"There's lots of scientific research on transfer and other motor learning principles that will show you there's research to support that teams play better at home," says McCutcheon. Translation: "We think it's a great place to play."

MORE: Question marks surround Penn State volleyball as tournament looms

Minnesota fans didn't see a lot of the Sports Pavilion early in the season, which saw the team on the road for 16 of its first 25 matches. But the final four conference matches were there and, as long as they keep winning, the Gophers will be at home for the next four. Next stop after that would be the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 15 and 17.


Minnesota lost to Texas in the national semifinal last year, which means everyone but this year's four freshmen -- including Hart, the lone rookie starter -- knows what the travel, media and fans will be like if they advance down that road again. That includes four key seniors: Wilhite, the Tapps and Schau.

Actually, since the Final Four was in volleyball-crazed Omaha last year, with Nebraska taking the crown on what felt like a home court, the experience in Ohio is likely to be less intense. One caveat: The defending national champion Cornhuskers also return almost everybody from their 2015 team.

Minnesota and Nebraska split their regular-season meetings this season and now find themselves on opposite sides of the NCAA draw. If both teams can make it through the first five rounds, they could settle who's better in a national final pitting the No. 1-seeded Cornhuskers against the No. 2 Gophers. ___

This article was written by Chris Hewitt from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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