By Mike Malloy for VolleyballMag.com
LINCOLN, Nebraska — The numbers seem like a typo.
Fifth-seed Nebraska (25-4) opens the NCAA Tournament a heavy favorite Friday at home against Ball State (20-11), not only because the Cornhuskers are one of the nation’s best teams but also because of history.
Nebraska is 52-1 at home during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“That sounds about right,” Ball State coach Kelli Miller Phillips said with a chuckle.
The only stumble came in 2011 when Kansas State stunned Nebraska in five sets. It’s still a vivid memory for Nebraska’s John Cook.
“I remember all the losses,” Cook said. “I can’t remember all the wins but the losses stick with us.”
On Thursday, Cook also recalled some closer-than-expected wins early in the tournament: A four-set victory against Harvard and a four-set win against American.
“I can remember 2000 in the second round, down to South Carolina in the fourth (trailing two sets to one),” he said. “We’ve had teams nobody’s ever heard of come in here and play out of their minds.”
Cook felt his team, which has no seniors, wasn’t in its right mind early in the season.
“There was some pretty sloppy volleyball,” Cook said without naming specific matches.
That’s a relative statement for a team that tied for second in the Big 10 and never was ranked lower than eighth in the AVCA Poll.
The Cornhuskers were 9-1 in November, and Cook saw his team peak with a near-perfect fifth set in a win against Minnesota.
“I think we made one error,” Cook said.
All-Big Ten hitter Lexi Sun leads the team with 378 kills; Big Ten freshman of the year Madi Kubik is second with 289. Many of those kills came from All-Big Ten setter Nicklin Hames, who has 1,156 assists.
So what’s it take to be the second team to beat Nebraska in this scenario? The Cardinals, in the tournament for the first time since 2011, have the first shot.
“They do a lot of funky stuff,” Hames said. “We’ll have to be disciplined in our block.”
Ball State was a .500 team deep into the season but caught fire late, winning nine in a row, including a five-setter against Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference Tournament final. Relying on a lot of freshmen, like outside hitter Natalie Risi, led to a lot of changing lineups and inconsistent efforts.
“When you show up for preseason and you’re playing two weeks later, it’s tough,” Miller Phillips said. “We knew we’d have to be patient.”
The Cardinals, 2-8 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, are 35th in the nation in kills-per-set (13.78); Risi and Kia Holder have each averaged more than three per set during the winning streak. Both will have to be at their best for Ball State to compete.
“They are more physical and bigger than us,” Miller Phillips said of Nebraska. “They don’t have any holes; one of the best offensive teams and one of the best defensive teams.”
If Ball State doesn’t shock the world, Northern Iowa (24-10) or Missouri (21-7), which play in today’s first match, will get a turn. The Panthers stunned Nebraska two years ago at an early season tournament in Omaha, beating Big Red for the first time in eight tries. Coach Bobbi Petersen said that of her 509 career victories, that one definitely ranks in the top 10.
“It was an exhausting match,” Petersen said. “We defended well, we hit off the block well. Everything was clicking.”
Missouri, in the tournament for the fifth-straight year, beat Northern Iowa in September. That loss was part of a 3-7 start for Northern Iowa which rebounded to win the Missouri Valley regular season championship, and earn its 23rd berth in the NCAA.
Multiple players changed positions at the start of the year as Petersen adopted a three-middle-blocker system — something she hasn’t used in 20 years. It took a while to adjust, but now the players have flourished in the new alignment.
“We have a lot of depth, and so we’re able to make changes. The three-middle system works well with that,” Petersen said. “Blocking is the biggest challenge. When you’re blocking middle and you go to a pin (hitter) your responsibilities are so different.”
Senior Karlie Taylor — who took 78 swings in a match against Creighton this year — is sixth in the nation with 613.5 points scored. Fellow senior Rachel Koop is second in the nation with 1,441 assists.
First-year Missouri coach Joshua Taylor said Northern Iowa has improved dramatically since September, and its atypical alignment could cause problems.
“This one’s going to be a lot tougher,” Taylor said. “They’re a pretty good passing team, we’re a pretty good serving team.”
The Tigers’ Kylie Deberg, is 10th in the nation in kills per set, and leads Missouri with 48 aces. She had 18 kills in the four-set win against the Panthers earlier this year. Sophomore Andrea Fuentes is 17th in the nation with 1,231 assists.
Missouri lost to Nebraska in last year’s NCAA second round, in what ended up being the last game coached by Wayne and Susan Kreklow. The couple retired this summer after 19 years with the Tigers. Taylor was an assistant a season ago, and knows the challenge that could lie ahead.
“Dealing with the psychological weight of playing Nebraska, that’s the biggest thing,” Taylor said. “If you starting thinking about things like that, you’re not playing free.”
When Nebraska played Missouri in last season’s NCAA Tournament, it was the first meeting between the former league rivals since Nebraska moved to the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers dominated the Big 12 (previously the Big 8 before dissolving in 1996), posting a .950 winning percentage against former Big 8 schools. Here’s the breakdown:
Iowa St 83-2
Kansas St 83-4
Oklahoma State 6-0 (note: Oklahoma State dropped its program in the 1970s)
Coaching experience varies greatly among the four teams in Lincoln, with two longtime, successful coaches and two that hope to be so someday. A look at their career records:
John Cook, Nebraska, 27 years, 746-153 (585-80 in 20 years at Nebraska)
Bobbi Petersen, Northern Iowa, 20 years, 509-161
Kelli Miller Phillips, Ball State, 4 years, 74-50
Joshua Taylor, Missouri, first year, 21-7