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Padding the Stats: On Nebraska’s NCAA Tournament Draw

November 30, 2022

As far as postseason draws go for non-No. 1 seeds, I’m not sure Nebraska could have asked for a better one than what the Huskers received (even if they had to wait a bit to learn it).

Nebraska won’t have to see Texas, the overall No. 1 seed, in the Elite Eight for the third straight season. They won’t have to see Stanford or Wisconsin either, two of the four teams that have already beaten the Huskers this season.

If Nebraska is fortunate enough to earn a spot in the Regional Final once again this season, they’ll likely see Dani Busboom Kelly’s Louisville Cardinals, the other No. 1 seed. Louisville is a phenomenal team who has had another great season, but the Huskers did beat them in the Final Four last season. Louisville is ls the second-shortest trip of the four No. 1 seeds from Lincoln, for any fans that wish to cheer the team on in person.

After the week Nebraska had leading up to Selection Sunday, the Huskers deserved a bit of good fortunate. But from here on out, they’re going to have to make their own luck, and before they can worry about future opponents, they have to figure themselves out.

The only thing consistent about this season for Nebraska has been change. Only four players — Lexi Rodriguez, Kaitlyn Hord, Whitney Lauenstein and Madi Kubik — have played in every set this season. Only Rodriguez and Hord have played the exact same role all season. Injury, illness and coach’s decisions have led to a revolving rotation as Nebraska hasn’t really been able to roll with the same group in the same roles for more than a few weeks in a row.

We’ve seen two different systems and three different setters, with each of them spending time in and out of the rotation for various reasons. We’ve seen hitters bounce from one pin to the other and back and we’ve seen pins swap spots in the rotation, from starting to the bench. We’ve seen a true freshman start at two different positions and also spend most of the season on the bench. Every player on the poster has had to contribute in matches at one point or another, including four freshmen.

The latest bit of adversity that led to lineups was the worst. The Huskers lost their senior captain and defensive stalwart in the back row to a torn ACL just two days before their biggest match of the season, against Wisconsin. They lost, then had to play without their fifth-year senior setter the following day against Minnesota. They lost again.

“They’ve had to be adaptable, but it just shows you how hard it is to be good at a high level,” Coach John Cook said after the Minnesota match. “It’s only a couple points here and there, but I saw some things tonight I’ve never seen our players do error-wise and swing-wise. There was just a lot of uncertainty tonight because we’re playing all these different lineups.”

Madi Kubik and Ally Batenhorst were thrust into different roles and the team as a whole had to pick up the slack for the missing Knuckles, who had played in nearly every set of her four-year career up to the final week of the final regular season of her career. Then Anni Evans had to stop in for Hames, and Cook shuffled his lineup even more in the hopes of finding rotations that would click better.

Hames’s status for the tournament was still up in the air when Cook spoke on Sunday (we’ll seek an update during the team’s Wednesday press conference). We know Knuckles is definitely out (though she’ll be doing everything she can from the bench to contribute). 

The Huskers had to adjust on the fly last weekend. This week hopefully provided them with a chance to reset and spend a couple days on the practice court rediscovering their identity with the personnel they now have available. Responsibilities need to be hammered down and players have to settle into their new roles.

“I’ve got to figure out, because we’ve never been in this situation before,” Cook said. “So we have to figure it out. I think it’ll get better once we know … like Madi, she’s been playing next to Kenzie for four years here, and so has Lexi [Rodriguez]. We were the best passing team in the Big Ten, and now we’re trying to figure out how to pass again and who has what balls … So we’ve got some stuff to figure out.”

Passing assignments and communication without Knuckles is the first thing Nebraska needs to iron out. The Cornhuskers also need to figure out how to get kill from the left pin. Lindsay Krause had a strong weekend overall while Whitney Lauenstein had one good match and one where she struggled, but in total Nebraska got 38 kills on .278 from the right side. From the left: 27 kills on .053 hitting.

With Knuckles unavailable, Ally Batenhorst is now playing all six rotations. Her back-row play is a work in progress (which is why Knuckles was subbing for her in the first place), but first and foremost the Huskers absolutely need more kills and fewer errors from her if they want to make a deep run.

Cook switched Batenhorst and Kubik’s spots in the lineup so that Kubik spent more time in the back row as she is more comfortable in that role. Kubik said the change doesn’t really impact her role. Cook suggested that Knuckles’ injury might have weighed heavily on Kubik with how close the two of them are. In any regard, Nebraska needs Kubik to play like she has most of the season, and perhaps even better if they want to go all the way.

The performance of the pins ties back into the setting, though, which ties back into the passing, which involves communication and positioning prior to the serve or swing. Nebraska has to nail all those little things despite the adversity and the constant change they have to face.

If they can’t, they likely won’t get the chance to capitalize on a potentially favorable draw. The Huskers will have to go through Delaware State, either Miami or Kansas, and likely No. 3 seed Baylor if they want to reach the Elite Eight and a potential showdown with Louisville.

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