MINNEAPOLIS - Hugh McCutcheon was hoping that an early season schedule filled with ranked teams in five of the first six matches would pay off for the University of Minnesota volleyball team in the Big Ten season.
So far for the Gophers, so good. Minnesota is 11-5 on the season, 6-2 in league play entering a pair of tough matches this weekend against top-15 teams. The No. 12-ranked Gophers have won three straight and four of their past five.
But the road doesn’t get any easier. The Gophers host No. 14-ranked Penn State Friday night at Maturi Pavilion. Less than 48 hours later, No. 6-ranked Ohio State comes to town.
"It’s been a nice run and we continue to make improvements in some pretty important areas. We’ll learn a lot this weekend, but feeling pretty good about where we’re at. We’ll go play hard and see what happens," Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said Thursday.
At 6-2 in the Big Ten, Minnesota sits in a three-way tie for third place with the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes, making the weekend matches that much more important. Last year, the Gophers hosted Penn State for a pair of matches, and won both, but they took four sets and five sets.
McCutcheon expects more of the same this weekend. The Big Ten might be the most competitively balanced in 2021 that it’s ever been in McCutcheon’s time at Minnesota. The league has six top-25 teams, and all are in the top 14.
"It’s tough, lots of teams can play and the level of parity and the competitive balance is unlike any other year I’ve been here," McCutcheon said. "With the transfers and COVID seniors and all that stuff, it’s a lot of good teams. We’ve always said every night it’s a battle, no truer than this season, that’s for sure."
They’ll be battle tested when it comes time for the NCAA Tournament, and that was the goal for the Gophers when the season started. After facing Penn State and Ohio State, Minnesota will face ranked opponents in five of its final 10 matches.
That slate includes No. 9 Nebraska and No. 8 Ohio State on the road, home matches against No. 4 Purdue and No. 2 Wisconsin and a road trip to No. 14 Penn State.
The conference title race is far from over as the top teams in the league beat up on each other, Minnesota included.
"Given the amount of competitive depth, I think it’s one of those races that won’t be over until it’s over. I think anyone that feels like they’ve got it made at this point is either a little ignorant or a little arrogant, one or the other," McCutcheon said. "It still feels like there’s a lot of meat on the bone for everybody. Still plenty of opportunity here."