Nebraska received one final reminder of last year’s season-ending heartbreak on Sunday night as the NCAA Tournament Selection show opened with some highlights from last year’s national championship.
“It didn’t feel good,” junior outside hitter Lexi Sun said. “I guess it was just another reminder. We’re always remembering that game and looking back and using it as motivation.”
The final stretch of Nebraska’s climb back to the college volleyball mountain top begins this week as the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee rewarded the Huskers’ work this season with the No. 5 overall seed. The Huskers will take on Mac champion Ball State at the Devaney Center on Friday.
The AVCA released its final coaches poll of the regular season on Monday and the top six remained the same with the Huskers at No. 6. Nebraska also finished at No. 8 in the RPI, dropping two spots from the previous week. Even so, the committee valued Nebraska’s resume enough to put the Huskers ahead of one-loss and second-ranked Pittsburgh on the seed line.
Baylor, the top overall seed in the tournament, was also No. 1 in the poll with 43 of 64 first-place votes. Stanford is No. 3 in both the poll (10 first-place votes) and in the tournament while fourth-ranked Texas earned the No. 2 seed from the committee. Big Ten champion Wisconsin is No. 5 in the poll but received the No. 4 seed for the tournament.
Penn State and Minnesota flip-flopped at Nos. 7 and 8 after the Golden Gophers beat the Nittany Lions to close out the season, and both received national seeds (Minnesota 7, Penn State 11). Purdue moved up two spots to No. 14 and also received the final national seed in the tournament at No. 16. Michigan held steady at No. 22 but Illinois dropped out of the poll after losing to Northwestern on Saturday. Both made the tournament.
Creighton (24-5) dropped from No. 10 to No. 15 after losing to St. John’s in the first round of the Big East Tournament. The Red Storm went on to beat Marquette in the final, giving the Big East three bids. San Diego (24-5), who Nebraska could potentially see again in the Sweet 16, held its spot at No. 20. UCLA (18-11) dropped one spot to No. 23. Missouri (21-7) is second among other teams receiving votes with 34 points. If the Tigers and Huskers both win on Friday, they’ll face off against each other in the second round at the Devaney Center.
Sun said Coach John Cook’s message to the team after they learned their draw was to trust in their training and focus on the basics. He said this week of practice is going to be big for the Huskers.
“This week we’ve got to train and get better at the fundamentals, make sure we’re really solid on that part going in,” Cook said. “Our serve, block and defense — some of these teams are not going to be used to seeing that so we have to make sure were really good in that area.”
Nebraska’s serve and pass has been up and down this season, but their defense has been among the best in the country all year. Nebraska played 13 matches against NCAA Tournament teams, winning nine of them, and it went 17-3 in Big Ten play.
“Just play with confidence and belief,” Cook continued. “I told the team they’ve paid their dues — they’ve been to Asia, they’ve worked really hard, we’ve been through a brutal conference schedule, we’ve won some big matches, they’ve played really high-level volleyball at times, we’re the No. 1 defensive team in the conference, we’re second or third in attack. We were No. 1 last year in defense but we weren’t even close in attack last year. Jazz [Sweet] and Lexi, their stats are 100 points higher than last year in attacking. Our team’s attacking is way up. We’ve probably, statistically, played a higher level of volleyball this year than last year. I want them to believe and know that they’ve worked hard.
“Those are some things that we can point out that are real examples of we’ve played at a high level. But I also think there’s a lot of really good teams too that we’re doing that against so that's a pretty good accomplishment.”
After everything the Huskers experienced this season, Sweet, a junior who played a key role two years ago on the 2017 national championship team, wasn’t surprised but their seed.
“I just think I was really grateful for it,” Sweet said. “Last year in 2018 we got seeded seventh, so five is a big accomplishment.”
Nebraska has four players who were on that 2017 title team and five more who helped the team make it back to the championship match last year. It also has two freshman starters — outside hitter Madi Kubik and libero Kenzie Knuckles — who were in the crowd watching when the Huskers lost that match to Stanford last year.
Sun’s message to the freshmen is simple: lean on the veterans.
“Just looking up to the older players who have been there before and done it,” Sun said. “We have some players on the team who have won national championships and done it and I think just looking up to them and relying on them and trusting in them.”
Cook doesn’t expect the moment to be too big for Kubik and Knuckles, who have improved quite a bit throughout the season.
“They’ve prepared for this,” Cook said. “This is why they came early, this is why we went to Asia was to play our best volleyball this time of year.”
Sun said she’s hoping for another crack at taking down the Badgers who handed Nebraska two of its four losses this season. But the Huskers have to take care of business in the first three rounds first, and that starts this week in practice.
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.