Nebraska volleyball left for Minneapolis last night in hopes of returning on Sunday with its second straight national title and third in four years.
The Hail Varsity team is leaving for Minneapolis today to cover whatever it is that happens there. If you're not already, give Jacob Padilla, Derek Peterson and John Peterson a follow. They'll be hitting the Nebraska-Oklahoma State basketball game in Sioux Falls on their way back, too, so it's a two-for-one.
Nebraska's national semifinal matchup against Illinois on Thursday (8 p.m., ESPN) is fascinating on a number of fronts.
The Coaches: It's John Cook versus his former assistant Chris Tamas, master versus apprentice or something that will be pitched as close to that whether it is or not. Tamas was on the Nebraska staff for two seasons before Illinois snapped him up and he turned the Illini into a Final Four team in two years. Illinois finished 17-14 (10-10 Big Ten) the season before Tamas arrived. Cook holds a 2-1 edge in the series.
The Setters: You have one of the best senior setters in the country, Illinois' Jordyn Poulter, and one of the best freshman setters in the country, Nebraska's Nicklin Hames. It's not easy making a semifinal with a freshman setter, but Hames has been relatively consistent for a freshman. Will her inexperience show in her first Final Four? It's Poulter's first, too.
Offense-Defense: Cook has built his program on defense and the Huskers lead the country in opponent hitting percentage (.136). Illinois ranked 28th at .164, but the Illini have the edge on offense hitting .283 (9th) to Nebraska's .265 (17th).
The 2018 Series: Nebraska handed Illinois one of its three losses this season, beating the Illini 3-1 in Champaign on Sept. 29. Illinois return the favor beating Nebraska 3-1 at Devaney on Oct. 27. That was the Huskers' last loss to this point. Nebraska has dropped four sets total since the start of November.
This match feels custom-built for narrative building, and there's not a lot separating the two teams. But there is a slight difference in the Pablo Rankings. (What are the Pablo Rankings? That's answered in depth here by the system's creator, Rich Kern, but the short answer is it's a predictive model that includes margin of victory, as all predictive models should.)
Illinois finished the regular season at No. 3 in the AVCA poll, Nebraska No. 6, and earned a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament (No. 3) than the Huskers (No. 7). Pablo had those rankings nearly flipped going into the postseason. The Huskers ranked fourth in the final Pablo Rankings, Illinois sixth.
Looking at Pablo also shows you just how tough Nebraska's regional rounds were. The Huskers beat the No. 5 team in the Pablo Rankings, Kentucky, in the regional semifinal, and were expected to face No. 3 Minnesota in the final until Oregon sprung the upset. The Ducks, however, were still ranked No. 11 in Pablo.
Illinois reached the Final Four by beating No. 15 Marquette and No. 8 Wisconsin.
All of that should make for a fun night of volleyball on Thursday.
The Grab Bag
- Here’s a quick Final Four primer from NCAA.com.
- Greg Smith on Nebraska’s “slow” recruiting period and why that’s a good thing.
- Derek Peterson with a detailed look at Nebraska’s defensive line . . .
- . . . and the Huskers’ run game.
Today’s Song of Today