The Iowa Hawkeyes have only beaten two Big Ten teams this season (one of them twice). Nebraska nearly became the third on Saturday night as the Hawkeyes took the Huskers to five sets at the Devaney Center before Nebraska came alive late to finish them off.
The Huskers can’t afford a repeat performance this weekend as they hit the road to take on two of the top teams in the conference.
“Going into this week, we’ve got to look at what went wrong in Iowa, what we did well in Iowa, and then move on and get ready for these two games this weekend,” sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said.
Coach John Cook said he was going to spend 30 seconds at the start of Monday’s practice on what happened against Iowa before they moved on and turned their attention to this week’s opponents: No. 7 Minnesota and No. 5 Wisconsin.
“They’re both top-10 teams, really good teams and they have really good atmospheres so it’s hard to play in those gyms,” Hames said. “You have to really go in with a great mindset and get ready for a great battle.”
Hames said the Huskers didn’t have that mindset heading into the Iowa match and that’s what led to Saturday’s results.
“I think it’s things that we can control like communication and having energy and going out there with the right mindset,” Hames said. “I think we just weren’t really in the right mindset and we weren’t in communication and it showed out on the court. We’re going to work on those this week. It’s things we can control and we’ll work around it and bring it out against Minnesota and Wisconsin.”
The Badgers are currently sitting atop the Big Ten standings at 15-1 while the Huskers, Golden Gophers and Penn State Nittany Lions are all 14-2. If the Huskers were to win out the next two weeks—no small feat, to be sure—they would guarantee at least a share of the Big Ten title.
“I think if you had asked me in the beginning of the season and our nonconference play if we could be in the position we’re in right now, I would have said I’ll take it," Cook said. “I don’t think we can ask for anything better than to be going into a big weekend with a lot on the line. That’s what we want, we want a shot at this. We get it’s going to be a tough road going on the road twice at Minnesota and Wisconsin, but that’s life in the Big Ten. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to see if we can go to another level.”
Hames said the Huskers understand the magnitude of this week, but they also realize there’s still a lot of volleyball to play beyond this weekend.
“It’s a big week, but we don’t want to put too much emphasis on it,” Hames said. “It’s another Big Ten game, it’s going to be a battle no matter what. The Big Ten title, there’s a race for it so these two games have a little bit more priority but we’re just going to go out there, be ourselves and battle hard and see where that takes us.”
Cook made sure to note that both Minnesota and Wisconsin have to visit Penn State next week, so nothing will truly be decided no matter what results this weekend brings.
Wisconsin’s win over Minnesota led to those two swapping spots in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll while the Huskers held on between them at No. 6.
The Top four of No. 1 Texas (51 first-place votes), No. 2 Pittsburgh (11), No. 3 Baylor (1) and No. 4 Stanford (1) remained unchanged. No. 8 Penn State, No. 23 Michigan and No. 25 Illinois all held their spots while No. 17 Purdue dropped one spot.
Creighton moved up one spot to No. 12, San Diego jumped up four spots to No. 20 and UCLA is second among other teams receiving votes with 48 points, 14 behind the Illini.
Nebraska is at or near the top of the Big Ten in most statistical categories, but Cook said he’s still hoping the team can rise up another level with one area of the game in particular that needs improvement.
“Statistically we’re doing some pretty good things,” Cook said. “I think we have to continue to try to win the serve and pass battle is the biggest thing, and going on the road that’s a bigger challenge. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that, statistically, we can improve in … The other thing I’ve been talking to the team about is not giving up runs, and that’s serving and passing … That’s how you create runs is by keeping the pressure on and you don’t give up runs by passing well. I think that’s the biggest challenge for this group; that’s where we can really, really improve.”
The Huskers will take on Minnesota on Friday night at 8 p.m. on BTN. They’ll travel to Madison on Saturday and take on the Badgers Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m., also on BTN.
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.