MINNEAPOLIS - When the University of Minnesota volleyball team takes the court Wednesday night, you won’t be able to blame Hugh McCutcheon or his players if there’s a little extra adrenaline at Maturi Pavilion.
The Gophers (1-1) are starting their home schedule against Texas, the No. 1-ranked team in the country. That’s a heck of a way to reopen "The Pav" to fans after there were none in 2020 due to COVID-19. It should be a capacity crowd taking in an early non-conference match between two top-10 teams.
The Longhorns are 2-0, coming off a 2020 run to the NCAA title match and return five All-Americans. McCutcheon will never shy away from facing early season top competition.
"If you want to be one of the last teams standing, how nice to get a little litmus test in September so you know what you’ve got to be like in December?" McCutcheon said Tuesday. "You could try to massage it, you could try to put in a few teams that maybe you think you’ve got a better chance of winning more comfortably against or something. But at some point, you’ve got to get into the fray, you’ve got to engage. For us we just think if we can go right away, let’s go right away."
Minnesota and Texas have formed a bit of a rivalry in recent years. The Gophers are 5-5 all-time against the Longhorns, with Texas winning the most recent match in 2019 in three sets, all decided by three points or less. The Gophers last beat the Longhorns in four sets in 2017.
The Gophers are coming off losing in four sets against No. 10-ranked Baylor to open the season last Friday night. They bounced back Saturday, knocking off TCU 3-0.
In addition to hosting No. 1 Texas on Wednesday, the Gophers face No. 5 Florida in Gainesville on Sunday. Five of their first six non-conference matches are against ranked teams.
When they enter Big Ten play, it’s a gauntlet. Seven conference teams, including Minnesota, are ranked. Five teams, including the Gophers, are in the top 10. That’s why McCutcheon filled the non-conference slate with ranked teams. There’s only one way to get ready for a brutal conference schedule. McCutcheon on Tuesday called the overall depth of the Big Ten this season "nuts."
"If you say your program is about trying to become the best they can be with the hope of winning some big matches at the end of the year, at some point you’ve got to act as if. You can’t say we want to do all these great things and then avoid opportunities for growth and improvement over the course of the season," McCutcheon said. "If you want to get good at playing top 20 teams, you play top 20 teams."
Wednesday will mark the first time for fans at Maturi Pavilion since a December 2019 win over Creighton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. What better way to reopen The Pav than against the best team in the country?
"I’m really excited. I know that the fans give us a big rush and a lot of excitement. They’re very supportive and I just can’t wait to be able to play in front of them and show everybody what we’ve been training for," Taylor Landfair said.
The Gophers are hoping to take advantage of having that home court. They were 8-1 at home last season, despite not having fans.
"It’s definitely not the same without the fans, so we’re really excited this year to have them. I think they just give us a lot of energy and we love the support. It’s awesome," Rachel Kilkelly said.
It’s the start of a big week for Gophers’ sports, with the football team hosting No. 4 Ohio State Thursday night. The buzz is building on campus, even if McCutcheon might not be aware of it. His day consists of being in his office, in the gym and then going home.
That said, The Pav is one of the best atmospheres in college volleyball when fans can watch the Gophers. Minnesota is 9-0 in home openers under McCutcheon, and 4-6 all-time against No. 1-ranked teams.
"If we get a good crowd, if we can pack it out, wonderful. It’s such a privilege to play in a place where the sport matters and the crowd is as passionate as they are. We never take it for granted," McCutcheon said.