LINCOLN — The Nebraska volleyball team's recent skid, with losses in three of its last four matches, has ended the Huskers' chances to repeat as Big Ten champions. But could it cost Nebraska even more?
Monday, coach John Cook said if the Huskers aren't able to solve their woes in the last three weeks of the regular season, they might start the NCAA tournament away from the NU Coliseum for the first time since 2003.
“I'm going to tell them this, 'If we don't get a top-16 seed, we're probably going to get shipped to (Kansas) State. So how do you like that?'” Cook said. “If you need some motivation, there it is. K-State will probably be a top-16 seed, and we're close, so they could ship us there. Maybe Creighton, I don't know.”
It's unclear how likely it is that Nebraska (18-5, 10-4 Big Ten) will begin the NCAA tournament on the road. The Huskers fell five spots to No. 9 in Monday's AVCA coaches poll after dropping a pair of five-set matches at Michigan and Michigan State over the weekend. However, Nebraska still is ranked ahead of both of its most likely competitors to host opening-round matches.
No. 17 Kansas State, which ended Nebraska's season in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament at the Coliseum, is fourth in the Big 12 and is 11th in this week's RPI ratings, which factor heavily into the NCAA selection committee's seeding decisions. The Wildcats' marquee win was a five-set victory over No. 10 Minnesota, a team the Huskers beat in the Coliseum last month. Nebraska is ranked fourth in this week's RPI.
Creighton (22-3) moved into the Top 25 this week at No. 25 and leads the Missouri Valley Conference, but is No. 33 in the RPI. The Bluejays likely would need to move into the top 15 in the RPI to host first- and second-round matches. Creighton is also listed as the host school for Omaha's NCAA regional round matches at CenturyLink Center, which could affect the school's chances of hosting in the opening rounds.
Cook's warning could very well be a straw-grasp at motivation for a team that has looked sluggish and unfocused over the last two weeks. After attacking at better than .300 in six straight matches to end its first trip through the Big Ten schedule, Nebraska has hit .225, .171, .256 and .188 in its last four matches. The Huskers led the Big Ten in blocks with more than three per set at one point, but are averaging 1.74 blocks per set since starting the second half of league play.
“Sometimes I think this team gets to a place where just because we have 'Nebraska' on our jersey, we think we're going to go in there and roll,” Cook said. “These teams are good, they're better. (Michigan and Michigan State) are better than they were last year. Everyone is fighting for their lives right now.”
It's obvious Nebraska no longer enjoys a talent gap wide enough to weather an off-night and still win. The Big Ten is a significant step above the Big 12 in volleyball, and it's debatable on some nights whether the Huskers even hold the advantage in terms of athletic ability.
Cook said that means Nebraska needs to out-execute opponents in all areas: blocking, serving, ball handling, floor defense and attacking. A drop-off in any area could mean another costly defeat, like in Saturday's match against Michigan State where the Huskers failed to convert four match points.
“Penn State has got bigger, more physical kids. They can get away with not playing as hard and as well and still win,” Cook said. “We can't do that. We don't have those types of athletes. We have to play great as a team every night. We've got to have our outside hitters all dialed in, and we have to win the serve-and-pass battle. The last four matches we've lost the serve-and-pass battle. We're going to struggle when we do that.”
It will be Nebraska's five seniors who will need to set the tone for the rest of the year, Cook said. To turn the potential the team has shown earlier in the year into consistent production and fulfill this year's rallying cry of “Unfinished Business.”
But there are only three weeks left in the regular season to show those lessons — both past and painfully present — have taken hold. Otherwise, no matter where Nebraska opens the NCAA tournament, it could be the final place those upperclassmen play in their college careers.
“Absolutely, it's on them,” Cook said of his seniors. “We'll see how they respond. It's a good learning opportunity for them. This is going to prepare us, hopefully, to be a little tougher team down the stretch.
“They have to make plays, and set the tone, and be the examples, and take over when we need to.”
No update on status of injured Werth
Cook said Monday he had not received an update on the status of senior outside hitter Hannah Werth, who injured her right ankle in the fifth set of Friday's loss at Michigan. The injury caused Werth to miss Saturday's loss to Michigan State as well.
Cook said Werth's injury came when a Michigan player stepped on her ankle underneath the net.
Werth, who is third on the team with 2.88 kills per set, is also one of the Huskers' top defensive players. She leads the team with 3.37 digs per set.
Nebraska reconfigured its lineup with Werth out against Michigan State, starting freshman Kelsey Fien in the front row and subbing in freshman defensive specialist Sheridan Zarda in back-row rotations.
“It completely changes our passing and our defense,” Cook said. “We're going from maybe one of the best defensive players in the conference to kids that are playing their first college matches.”
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