After the Gophers lost talent to graduation, this year’s team was going to need players to step up in order to be on-par with past teams.
So far, that has happened, especially in the early stages of the NCAA tournament.
The seventh seeded Gophers (28-5) will be playing in the Sweet 16 for the third time in as many years. Minnesota heads to Gainesville, Florida, where they play tenth seeded USC Friday at 6 p.m. This season marks the first time the Gophers are not the No. 2 seed in the bracket since 2014.
Middle blocker Molly Lohman likes that this team is flying under the radar.
“It’s pretty freeing for us,” Lohman said. “People weren’t expecting much of us going into the season. I think we’ve showed them otherwise and it’s been pretty freeing this whole tournament, because we don’t have as much weight on our shoulders.”
Lohman finished up her last matches at Maturi Pavilion over the weekend. The Gophers swept North Dakota on Friday and followed that up with a 3-1 win over Northern Iowa.
Lohman is a senior, but this year's team features underclassmen in key positions. Minnesota's top two kill leaders are freshman Stephanie Samedy and sophomore Alexis Hart. Samedy has 465 kills, while Hart has 433.
Head coach Hugh McCutcheon has enjoyed seeing his team grow and come into its own during the postseason. It’s been a different experience than the past two years for him.
“Well, obviously they’re different teams and different dynamics,” McCutcheon said. “I think because we’re younger, seeing the growth over the course of the year and seeing that play out here in the postseason has been particularly gratifying."
USC (24-9) finished third in the Pac-12 this season. The Pac-12 conference had the most teams make the NCAA tournament with nine. The Big Ten was a close second with eight programs hearing their names called. The Gophers also finished third in their conference.
"The Big Ten is great," McCutcheon said. "It exposes some of those weaknesses that all teams have. You’re forced to ... compensate and adjust because teams are coming at you a lot of different ways with a lot of different weapons."
The last two seasons, Minnesota has lost in the first round of the Final Four. The Gophers were upset by sixth-seeded Stanford. The Cardinal went on to win the national championship that year. The year before that, the team lost to third-seeded Texas.
If Minnesota wins, they will face either second-seeded Florida (27-1) or fifteenth-seeded UCLA (21-10) on Saturday for the right to go back to the Final Four and possibly go further.
Jack White contributed to this report.