The Huskers learned their draw for the NCAA Tournament on Sunday night. Nebraska’s path to a fourth straight Final Four will begin in Lincoln as the seventh-seeded Huskers take on Hofstra on Friday at the Devaney Center.
Coach John Cook has an interesting challenge on his hands. He has two seniors captains who have been to three Final Fours, two sophomores that played a key role on last year’s title team and four newcomers including three freshmen playing key positions. How does he feel about this year’s squad heading into the tournament?
“This time last year I was not thinking we were going to win a national championship, nor am I thinking that this year, but if you look at how we’ve played, I think we’re the most improved team in the country,” Cook said. “I think we’ve been one of the best teams in the month of November. You can just look at who we’ve played. For example, Ohio State just went five with Minnesota and we held them to a negative hitting percentage. I just think we’ve been playing at a really high level and I think we’re the most improved team in the country.
“Like I said in the beginning, it was going to take us a while to get to the point where we’re in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament and to have a chance. But I think this team is very motivated. I think they have a lot of confidence. Our freshmen have grown up. And you have two people who have been through the wars, Mikaela [Foecke] and Kenzie [Maloney], and they know how to get it done.”
Nebraska took its lumps this season, dropping more matches (six) than in any season since 2014. Five of those losses came in the span of seven games in October, all against top-10 opponents. But the Huskers turned things around with a five-set win over Penn State and closed the year on an eight-match winning streak.
Maloney said that despite the team’s record (24-6 compared to 26-4 last year), she’s even more confident heading into the postseason as she was a year ago.
“I think personally and team-wise, I would say I’m more confident, especially going into the tournament,” Maloney said. “We had a little rough stretch in October but I think we’ve just really come together as a team and we’ve built our confidence and I think we’re playing the best volleyball we have all year, so I think every one of us is super confident going into the tournament.”
That includes freshman setter Nicklin Hames, freshman middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach, freshman defensive specialist Megan Miller and sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun, who will be playing in their first NCAA Tournament as Huskers.
“I don’t think that any of the freshmen or newcomers are nervous one bit,” Maloney said. “I think that we have a ton of confidence, especially going off of our last eight wins. They’ve been super-competitive and really hard-fought wins. So I think going into the tournament, they’re going to have a great mindset and hopefully Mikaela, Brooke [Smith] and I can show them how confident we are in them and we can have a great run in the tournament.”
That confidence is well-earned, and Cook made sure to reinforce that when he spoke to the team prior to the selection show.
“I talked to them about statistically, how all the categories they’re ahead of the teams in the last three years that have been to the Final Four,” Cook said. “For example, serving, blocking, opponent attack efficiency, our serve-to-ace ratio; we’re close to ’15 in attack percentage, where we were in 2015. I explained all those things to them. I talked about who we’re the most improved team in the country and how we have already played Final Four matches.
“You can be worn down or battle-tested. I just think for a young team like this to go through all those matches we went through in that stretch we went through, even though we didn’t find success it really taught us the level we have to play at and the mindset we have to play with. It was great for our younger players, it was great for Lexi and to help develop our team. I think we’re well prepared for whatever we’re going to come up against in the NCAA Tournament.”
If Nebraska advances past this weekend, the Huskers could face Purdue or No. 10 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16, then No. 2 seed Minnesota or 15th-seeded Oregon in the regional final. No. 3 seed Illinois and No. 6 seed Wisconsin are both in Nebraska’s half of the bracket as well. No. 1 seed Stanford, No. 4 seed BYU, No. 5 seed Texas, No. 8 seed Penn State and No. 9 seed Creighton are all on the other half.
“I think there’s as much parity as there ever has been,” Cook said about this year’s field. “I think this year the Big Ten’s been as tough as it ever has been. I think all five of those top seeds could all get to Minneapolis and could all win it, and that’s just in our conference. You look at these other conferences and of course Stanford and BYU, Texas; there are a lot of teams that have a shot at this. It’s becoming more and more exciting I think for volleyball because I think there are more teams now that have chances and the parity’s getting better and better.”
As he has all year, Cook is relying heavily on his senior captains, Foecke and Maloney, to bring along the underclassmen and show them how to win in the postseason. Those two have a combined record of 47-2 in the months of November and December throughout their Nebraska careers.
“Those guys, we met before [the selection show] and I had them talk about what it takes, talk to these younger players,” Cook said. “They’re great. They get it … These guys know how to win and I’m happy they’re our leaders.”
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.