Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Cook Navigating Challenges as Huskers Prep for Unique NCAA Tournament Experience

April 04, 2021

Nebraska is heading to the NCAA Tournament for the 39th year in a row, and for the second straight season the Huskers will do it as the No. 5 overall seed.

John Cook said he’s not too worried about the Huskers’ seed, but rather this year’s unique format and how it will impact Nebraska as one of the 16 teams to receive a first-round bye.

“Right now what I’m worried about is we’ve got to play a team that’s going to play one day in front of us and we’re going to go three weeks without having played a match,” Cook said. “So that’s my biggest concern is how do I get our team ready to be able to play a match and play at a high level. It’s going to be a big challenge.”

In fact, Cook said he’d almost rather have not made the top 16 so the Huskers got the chance to play in the first round considering their last match was on March 26.

“We’re just happy we’re in,” Cook said. “I don’t know if I’m happy we have a seed because I almost would rather play the first day. That’s going to be a challenge for a lot of teams; it’s not like you’re in a normal gym and going to be in that gym. I don’t even know if we’ll get to practice on the courts we play on; I think they’re going to have to set up some other practice courts. It’s going to be really challenging from a mental point of view.”

The Huskers brought back most of their rotation from last year’s team that made a run to the regional finals, but they only got to play 16 matches this season with multiple schedule interruptions caused by COVID-19 issues in other programs. Then the Huskers lost a starter for the rest of the season and only had three matches to figure out their new lineup.

“We’ve been somewhat battle-tested, but the whole year’s been so start-stop,” Cook said. “It’s hard to get momentum. Sometimes in a season you get momentum, you win a few big matches and then you’ve just got this momentum. We finally started getting that toward the end here. We were playing some good volleyball. And then boom, you shut down for three weeks. Like I told you, there’s a natural letdown there and there’s nothing we can do about it. My coaches are playing golf every day. What can you do, watch more video or something?

“We’ve got to ramp it back up and that’s, to me, the challenge. I felt like we were getting to a really good spot where we were understanding how hard we had to play and the level we had to play at and the sense of urgency, and then we got shutdown against Wisconsin and we got shut down against Penn State. Those are the matches that bring out the best in you, we needed those. We had a couple other really good battles with Minnesota and Ohio State and Illinois, but it seems like it was a long time ago.”

Cook said he took it easy on his team this week after learning that Penn State would not be able to come to Lincoln as scheduled, but now he has to strike the right balance between keeping them well-rested and getting them ready for live competition again following an extended layoff. Cook called it the “art of coaching.”

“We’re looking at how we set up our week in leading up to going up there,” Cook said. “We know we’re going to be one day up there doing nothing and then we get a 90-minute practice the second day and the third day we play with no practice. So that’s going to be way out of what we’re used to and all the teams are used to. Typically you practice the day you play. I have to figure out how we’re going to manage the week and lead up to that and try to get them back up to where they’re playing at a high level. This weak, I don’t care who you are, when you don’t play there’s a letdown. There’s a mental and physical letdown. We recognize that. We took it easy this week, but now we see the target out there and what we’ve got and now we can make a plan and go and I can get them to buy into that.”

In addition to working off the rust, the Huskers will have to deal with a completely different format as normal. The Huskers will play a second round match, then if they advance they’ll get a couple of days off before playing again in the regional semifinals and finals. Of course, the tournament is taking place on a controlled environment with plenty of restrictions and safety measures for the student-athletes and coaches. They also will have to reach the regional finals before attendance opens up beyond a small list of guests for the participants.

“I’m really, really concerned about it,” Cook said. “We’re spending a lot of time talking about it. Now that we know, we have a plan for this week but now we’ll be able to go into next week and refine this week. They’re already worried about tickets right now because they only get two tickets. Here we go. It’s just going to be so different than what they’re used to. We’ve got to really do a great job of getting them to understand this is not our typical NCAA Tournament, it’s not our typical Big Ten matches, this is something completely different. I’ve got to find a way to make it fun and adventurous.”

Cook did say the allure of playing in front of bigger crowds — something they lost out on when the series against Penn State got canceled — will be one of the things driving them as the begin their tournament run.

“I think it’s a big deal even though it won’t be 18,000,” Cook said. “I think the fact that, and we’ve talked about this for a year-and-a-half now, there’s always a great opportunity when the tournament’s in Omaha for us. If we can get to Omaha when they allow fans in … it certainly could be a really big boost for us. We were excited to play Penn State in front of fans; that was a huge deal for our players.”

With Omaha hosting the entirety of the tournament, all three in-state Division I programs are helping the NCAA pull it off in one way or another.

“Our strength coach, Brian Kmitta, was contacted by them to set up a weight room up there,” Cook said. “I’m glad they’re ahead of that because we’re going to be there a couple days … Nebraska’s helping with that. Then both of our Teraflex floors are going to be taken up there and I believe will be game floors up there not on the main court, but two of the four courts [in the convention center]. I also think they’re taking Creighton’s court and Nebraska-Omaha’s court. We’re helping out with that because otherwise it would be a crappy floor on cement. Hopefully they’re going to put some padding underneath these floors and use these Teraflex floors which will be a lot easier on the athletes.”

Nebraska will watch Utah Valley and Texas State battle it out on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. CT in the first round to learn their opponent for Thursday’s second round matchup. That match is scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. as well and will be streamed online at WatchESPN.

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