Continuing our look at the West Lafayette Regional we turn our attention to the most dominant team we might have to face in the tournament thus far, Penn State.
The Daily Gopher: How excited are you and other Penn State fans to be in the Sweet Sixteen? Is it sort of "ho-hum" and expected at this point given how successful the program is? Or does reaching this stage still hold some magic?
Cari: It's a mixture of both. I think most of us are excited, but it is expected. Last year was a big disappointment, losing to UCLA at the regionals, and this year we're a much better team and hopefully that will show during the tournament. The depth and talent coming to Penn State consistently nowadays is borderline scary, and with that come much higher expectations than the program had even five years ago.
TDG: What do you feel are this team's strengths and weaknesses?
Cari: I'll start with the weaknesses, because that's the easy part--serving. We have some really very strong servers, but they can be streaky and commit a lot of errors--which isn't unheard of with previous Nittany Lion teams, but it's at an Nth degree in 2012. Unlike in years past when our strong servers had "safe" serves to rely on in high-pressure situations, we're not seeing that as much this year--all the servers are full go all the time. This means more aces, but more often than not means A LOT more errors. This is a really frustrating thing to watch as a fan when your team gives away free points every set on really unnecessary service errors.
For the strengths, there's a lot to choose from. Penn State has historically been a very efficient blocking team, and this year is no exception (last year there was a bit of a drop off). Micha Hancock's setting is much improved from last year, and she distributes the ball really well to a variety of offensive weapons. We've also improved a lot on defense in the past few years, and it's good to see the players hustle to pick up every dig.
TDG: The Penn State players who stand out the most when reviewing the team's stats are Ariel Scott and Deja McClendon. Combined they've taken approximately half of the teams total attempts, have half the total kills, and account for over a third of the team's kills per set. What should Gophers fans know about this duo? Is there a key to stopping them?
Cari: McClendon can be streaky--when she's on, she's REALLY on and pretty darn amazing, but when she's off she's ice cold. Scott has been, in my opinion, the team's biggest surprise this year, because she's also a junior but she's stepped it up to be our most reliable offensive weapon this year. She takes really good angles and hits the line well.
The problem for the Gophers, and any team the Nittany Lions face, is that you can't just hope to stop McClendon and Scott to win. If either of them are being keyed on or having rough nights, freshman Megan Courtney, junior Katie Slay or senior Nia Grant can all step in in a pinch and all can be just as effective as McClendon and Scott.
TDG: Who would you say are the other players to watch on this year's team? What do they bring to the Nittany Lions that makes them so important to the squad?
Cari: I've already named a couple, and B1G freshman of the year Courtney is the one player that a lot of the attention is on. But I'm really impressed with DS/L Dominique Gonzalez, a sophomore in her first year with significant time on the floor. She's anchored the defense and is also a capable setter, which gives the Nittany Lions many more options if starting setter Micha Hancock is forced to rescue a ball and out of position or placement to set.
TDG: The Gophers were pretty soundly beaten by the Nittany Lions both at home and on the road this season. Let's assume for a minute that both Minnesota and Penn State win their Sweet Sixteen match-ups. What would the Gophers need to do in order to advance to the Final Four? Do you think Penn State would have to do anything different to defeat the Gophers a third time?
Cari: I think the key for the Nittany Lions to win or the Gophers to beat them lies on the Penn State side of the net. The Nittany Lions are very, very difficult to beat when they're operating efficiently, which they do 95% of the time--it's that 5% that allowed Oregon State and Nebraska to come back and defeat them. The Cornhusker match earlier this year went to five sets, and the two sets that Penn State won were not as competitive as the ones they lost. They have a tendency to win or lose matches, and if the Gophers want to advance they have to put Penn State in a position to beat themselves. I'm not exactly sure how they could go about doing that, but it seems to be the key.
TDG: What are your predictions for the regional?
Cari: I see a pretty easy victory for the Nittany Lions on Friday in the regional semis. The Purdue/Minnesota game should be a good one, with the Boilermakers over-performing so far this tourney and the Gophers seeded well. Minnesota has an excellent coach in women's national team coach Hugh McCutcheon, and I expect them to be ready and raring to go. If the Boilermakers can keep it close and to five sets, they have a shot, but I think the Gophers will win on Friday.
Saturday is another matter. The Gophers have a lot of potential and a great coach, but I'm not sure they're at the point in their program yet where they can beat a Russ Rose-coached team in December, where he's at his best. Give McCutcheon a few years, and I think Minnesota will be consistently seeing the third weekend of the NCAA tourney.