The Penn State-Nebraska rivalry is always fun, but over the last few years Wisconsin has established itself as the gold standard in the conference. On Wednesday night, Nebraska will get a chance to measure itself against that standard.
Nebraska failed that test the last time we saw these teams face off in 2019. The Badgers swept the Huskers three times that season including once in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin was in a COVID-19 pause when the Huskers were supposed to head to Madison last season. The Badgers won the only meeting between the teams in 2018 as well. Nebraska hasn’t beaten Wisconsin since 2017.
These two have clearly been the two best teams in the conference, by both record and statistical performance to this point, and it isn’t particularly close. Nebraska has won 10 straight matches to open conference play, dispatching two top-15 opponents in Penn State and Purdue in four games and dropping just one set in its other eight matches combined. Wisconsin surprisingly dropped its Big Ten opener to Maryland but has won nine straight since, including three over top-15 opponents in Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State.
Wisconsin has five players who returned for an extra season of eligibility led by four-time All-American 6-foot-8 middle blocker Dana Rettke and 2020 Big Ten Setter of the Year Sydney Hilley. The Badger are a combined 35-2 so far in 2021 (including the spring season). This is going to be the toughest match Nebraska has played since facing Texas in the NCAA Tournament last spring.
Lauren Stivrins, the only player on the team who has beat Wisconsin, said the team is viewing Wednesday as “just another game.”
“There’s a lot of outside pressure that people like to put on us playing Wisconsin and I don’t think that has any relevance to what actually happens on the court, so for us it’s just another game and we’re hoping to take this from good to great,” Stivrins said.
She said we — as in media and fans — can call it a rivalry, but she wouldn’t use the word herself, and that’s OK.
Part of what makes John Cook such a great coach is his ability to keep his team dialed in and focused on the little things. The “point by point” mentality is very real in this program, and the focus is always on playing Nebraska volleyball no matter who is on the other side of the net.
But this is absolutely a big-time matchup and fans should react accordingly. Show up and be loud if you have tickets. Tune in on Big Ten Network if you don’t. Wednesday will give us a chance to see two of the very best teams in the country squaring off.
After Wednesday, I think we’ll have a very good idea if this team is ready to truly contend for a national championship this season or, if not, how far it has to go.
And the best part is we’ll get to do it all over again in Madison in a month.
Setting the Bar
Two hours before John Cook’s team takes the court against the Badgers, Fred Hoiberg’s squad will make its season debut in an exhibition game against Peru State, a local NAIA team.
We likely won’t be able to learn much from that game (Nebraska beat Doane, another NAIA team, 110-64 in a regular season replacement game last season, and the Huskers also beat Doane 91-63 in an exhibition during Hoiberg’s first season in Lincoln). Even the lineups used beyond the starting five likely won’t tell us too much as Hoiberg said he plans to experiment some and script out rotations to get a lot of guys on the court.
I’m less interested in what happens in that game and more focused on how this season will play out, and what can be considered a successful year three.
Hoiberg has 14 wins in two seasons at Nebraska including just five against Big Ten teams. I don’t think Hoiberg would have come to Lincoln if he didn’t think he could win, but what does winning look like for a program that is still waiting for its first NCAA Tournament win?
For the first time during his tenure, it feels like Hoiberg has a roster he can compete with. He returns three starters plus his sixth man from last year’s team, so he has some continuity and some experience in the Big Ten to build around. He’s bolstered that core with a recruiting class that both raises the talent level — headlined by the program’s first 5-star recruit and a super senior transfer from another high-major program — and addresses last year’s weaknesses by adding shooting and size. The pieces have finally started to come together.
However, it’s possible that none of Nebraska’s projected starters — Alonzo Verge Jr., Trey McGowens, Bryce McGowens, Lat Mayen and Derrick Walker — will be here a year from now. Verge won’t have the option to return. McGowens, Mayen and Walker would all be considered seniors this season if not for the eligibility freeze last season; all three will have a decision to make about an extra year at the end of the season. And the younger McGowens is already showing up in the first round NBA mock drafts and is firmly on the one-and-done radar.
To get this thing moving in the right direction, Hoiberg has to capitalize on this team’s potential while he has it. But what does that look like? The Big Ten media picked Nebraska to finish 11th in the conference — a significant improvement from last year, but would that really make you feel good as a fan if it plays out that way? Would you be happy with an NIT run? Or is an NCAA Tournament win where you’re setting the bar?
We’ve already seen Nebraska strike out on its second attempt at the “recruit a 5-star brother” plan as 2023 point guard Simeon Wilcher, current Husker C.J. Wilcher’s younger brother, decided to commit to North Carolina. Bryce McGowens very well may be a special case. Nebraska has to take as much advantage of its first 5-star as it can in order to boost the program’s recruiting profile moving forward.
Bottom line: Nebraska has to win this season. If the Huskers finish with a winning record overall (which would give them more wins than the previous two years combined) I think Hoiberg would be able to feel pretty good about where his program stands. Anything less than that would feel like a missed opportunity, even as tough as the Big Ten looks to be once again.