The Nittany Lions had to cancel their matches against Wisconsin last week, so Tuesday morning’s news didn’t come as a big surprise. Cook said school administrators had been in communication throughout the weekend, and more positive tests popping up for Penn State meant the risk of playing the matches was too great.
“I do know that they’ve been concerned because they’re worried if Penn State is contagious and we play, I mean this is what happened with Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State, you’ve got one team that’s contagious and infects other teams,” Cook said. “So they were a little bit concerned about how much risk we have, and of course we don’t want to have an outbreak two weeks out from the tournament if we’re in the tournament.”
With every other team in the conference set to play and the Big Ten ban on nonconference matches, Nebraska doesn’t really have any options to fill the void this week.
“As far as I know, there’s nobody else to play, so right now we’ll probably take the weekend off,” Cook said. “It’s Easter weekend. Our team’s been going literally since Jan. 1, so they probably would be looking forward to a break. So we’ll kind of tone it down this week and then I think ramp up game week next week, and then if we get in the tournament we would go, I think, on the 11th to Omaha.”
The program was set to welcome fans back to the Devaney Center for the first time this season on Thursday and Friday, but that’s off the board now. Athletic Director Bill Moos said last week that they planned to sell up to 2,400 tickets.
“Part of me was — I’m being honest with you here, this isn’t the answer you were expecting — if we’re going to play in Devaney I want 8,000 people in there, not 2,000,” Cook said. “I was worried with 2,000 our players may still feel that ‘OK, here we go, what is this? Is this like a spring match, a scrimmage? Parents are here.’
“And then the other thing, the nightmare for us has been who gets in and who doesn’t? It’s a no-win for our ticket people, our staff. How they decide that, it’s a no-win. So in some ways, I’m relieved that we don’t have to go through that and I’m just counting the days until we can play in front of 8,000 again because that’s what Devaney’s meant for and that’s what it feels like. I had no idea how much I would miss that; I can’t imagine how much the players miss it.”
The NCAA Tournament selection show is set for Sunday at 3 p.m. CT on ESPNU, and despite Nebraska’s lofty ranking and 14-2 record, Cook said he’s not taking anything for granted as far as an at-large bid for the 48-team field goes.
“We have such a small group they’re taking and there’s been no talk of how they’re going to do that, so who knows?” Cook said.
If the Huskers are selected for the tournament, they’ll go close to three weeks between matches thanks to this week’s cancellations. Cook said he’ll meet with the programs trainers and sports psychologist over the next couple days to plan out how to handle the gap.
“I haven’t been through this one before; this is new for me,” Cook said. “So we have to figure out how we’re going to approach this mentally, physically, and try to keep this team sharp. So it’s going to be a heck of a coaching job to try to manage all this, keep everybody still going the same direction and motivated.”
No matches against Penn State means the Huskers only got to play two of the top six teams in the Big Ten. Nebraska split its matches with Minnesota and Ohio State, it had its series against Wisconsin and Penn State canceled and it was not scheduled to play Purdue this season; all five of those teams are ranked in the top 11 in the latest AVCA poll along with the Huskers.
“You want to play those matches because you learn a lot, and right now our greatest teaching match is Ohio State night two,” Cook said. “So you miss those experiences. I look at Wisconsin, they’ve missed I think four series. They played Minnesota once, but Minnesota was missing players and were completely a different team. It’s going to be interesting to see how the NCAA Tournament goes and what teams can overcome not being really tested.”
The Huskers only played against two ranked opponents this season, but Cook said he feels good about the experience this group has gained over the last couple of years.
“I like the fact that our team is returning all of our players,” Cook continued. “We have been tested before, although it was a long time ago. We had some good matches this year that forced us to play at a high level, but it’s a tough deal. I’m glad we’re in the Big Ten because even though we didn’t play Penn State or Wisconsin, we still played some really good teams and they make you compete and play and even the teams at the bottom of our conference are good.”
The rest of the Big ten will close out the regular season this week. If Wisconsin wins either of its two matches against Michigan this week, the Badgers will claim the Big Ten title based on winning percentage despite only playing 13 matches.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.