Q&A with The Daily Gopher previewing #8 Minnesota

Minnesota's Katherine Harms spiked the ball over the net. - Marisa Wojcik/Star Tribune

Chris from The Daily Gopher answered a few of my questions, previewing the Gophers before they face Purdue in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

You can follow Chris on The Daily Gohper and on Twitter @GoAUpher. Purdue will face #Minnesota at 7pm (or 30 minutes after the PSU/Kentucky match) in Mackey Arena. You can watch the game live on ESPN3.com.

Juan Crespo: At the end of the 2010 season, Minnesota coach Mike Hebert retired after coaching the team for 15 years. When Minny hired current coach Hugh McCutcheon, he couldn't start his job immediately as he was committed to coaching the USA volleyball team in the London Olympics, making Laura Bush (not the wife of George Bush) the interim head coach. Under Bush, the Gophers had a small setback in 2010, but still made it to the Sweet 16, but lost on their home court to #4 Iowa State. Without a doubt, this Minnesota team is much better than the 2011 team, so how has McCutcheon been able to step in after waiting a year and help improve this volleyball team?

Chris: First, thanks for having me on for the Q&A! I'm not really well versed in the ins and outs of Gopher volleyball (or VB in general), but I've been trying to keep up with their season as best I can from afar (I live in Madison, WI). So hopefully my answers aren't too elementary. =)

When it came to the transition to a new coach, I think the biggest thing that helped the process along was the fact that Coach McCutcheon's move to Minnesota was known well in advance. This allowed the team to make decisions that would help assure that there was continuity during the change.

Last season, the coaches implemented McCutcheons's system and techniques with the Gophers. I don't know how close it was to the final system McCutcheon ultimately wants for the team, but you have to think that this made the transition easier for the 7 returning Gophers on this year's squad and the transfers who were able to work out with the team over the summer.

Also helping with a smooth transition is the fact that Laura Bush moved from interim head coach to lead assistant (her old job under previous coach Mike Hebert). The players may not have known for sure what to expect from Coach McCutcheon in terms of style or on-court demeanor when he arrived, but they were prepared for what he would teach and they still had friendly faces on the coaching staff to help things along.

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JC: Of Minnesota's 7 loses, 6 of them came away from their home court, with 5 of those being played on opponent's home courts. With the exception of the loss to Kansas State early in the season on a neutral location, all of these games have been decided in 3-4 sets. How is Minnesota going to be able to overcome the home court advantage Purdue will have playing the Mackey Arena?

CH: The first would be to limit their errors, especially on the defensive side of things. Defense has been the half of the game where the Gophers have struggled more and solid defensive play will be important to winning in hostile Mackey Arena. Continuing to be balanced offensively will also be a great help. Spreading the scoring out will allow the Gophers to overcome a rough night any of the team's leaders or a strong defensive performance by Purdue.

Also important is not giving up momentum early. The Gophers only won 1 road game where they were down in sets 2-1 or 2-0 (@ OSU). In all their other road wins they were the aggressor. They've shown the ability to battle back from deficits in individual sets, but being down in total sets early probably means they go home.

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JC: Minnesota is 2nd in the Big Ten in kills (14.08 per set) and 3rd in hitting percentage (0.282). How can Purdue slow down the Gopher attack?

CH: A big change between this season and last seen is the fact that the Gophers are more balanced on offense. Purdue got some exposure to that when they lost in the Twin Cities earlier this season (where 4 Gophers had 10 kills or more). I'd say the best way to affect the Gophers would be to find ways to disrupt this balance. A good place to start would be to limit Katherine Harms, who leads the team in kills (484) and kills/set (4.10). Given the balanced scoring the Gophers have put up in many of their wins shutting down one player (even one as good as Harms) won't always be enough though. Getting the Gophers out of rhythm so that they make more errors is likely key as well. Otherwise other players (like Dixon, Ashley Wittman, Daly Santana) are good enough to pick up the slack.

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JC: Following up on that, Minnesota ranks 7th in the Big Ten in terms of opponent hitting percentage (0.242), 9th in blocking (2.06 per set), and 11th in digs (13.03 per set). How can Minnesota slow down the Purdue attack and prevent from becoming road kill? (Sorry, no pun intended)

CH: The biggest thing would be handling serves and cutting down on receiving errors. As I noted above, errors have been a problem all season and limiting them should help the Gophers get in a rhythm and transition to offense better.

They've also struggled against setters who are aggressive, quick, and who attack on the 2ndhit. That was a problem in their loss at Nebraska and was noticeable even in wins like their last one against Creighton. I'm not sure if Purdue setters fall into this mold, but if they do the Gophers will need to adjust and handle the pressure. When they do (like in the home win against Nebraska) good things can happen.

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JC: Finally, what is your prediction not just for the Purdue/Minnesota game, but the entire West Lafayette Regional?

CH: Given that it's on the road in Purdue's house, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Boilers/Gophers game to go 5 sets. Ultimately though I think the Gophers win. After losing 3 of 4 in early November the Gophers have been on a roll and I don't think that Purdue stops them.

I'd also expect Penn State to take down Kentucky. I'd love it if the Gophers beat PSU to get to a Final Four, but given the outcome of their earlier contests I'm going to pick PSU to advance. Call it a hard fought 5 set victory (why not?).
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Thank you Chris, and best of luck to the Gophers this weekend! But not too much, after all we want Purdue to advance to the Elite 8 on Saturday ;)
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