For the last couple years, Nebraska coach John Cook has made no secret he feels winning the Big Ten conference may be a harder feat than winning a national championship.
The Big Ten schedule is a 10-week grind with a top-25 opponent lurking around most corners. To start conference play this season, six of Nebraska’s first eight opponents were ranked in the top 16 of the coaches poll.
“To do this over 10 weeks, playing on the road, home matches, it might be the hardest thing to do and accomplish in college volleyball,” Cook said the night NU beat Iowa to clinch a share of the Big Ten title with a 19-1 league record.
In the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, the rest of the country saw what the fuss was about. The Big Ten placed a nation-leading six teams in the regional semifinals, despite three of the conference’s representatives doing it the hard way.
No. 1 seed Penn State, No. 5 Nebraska, and No. 7 Minnesota each dispatched their first two opponents at home with relative ease, but the league’s true depth was showcased by its mid-tier representatives upending seeded teams on the road.
Wisconsin, which handed the Huskers their lone Big Ten loss, hit .314 and swept No. 14 seed Iowa State in Ames in the second round. The Badgers’ 6-foot-8 middle blocker, Dana Rettke — likely the national freshman of the year — had 15 kills and hit .520 to send Wisconsin to a round of 16 matchup with defending national champion Stanford in Palo Alto, California, on Friday night.
Michigan State also put up a big hitting number (.325) by pulling away to end Creighton’s season in the second round at Sokol Arena. Four Spartans had at least 13 kills, led by 18 from senior outside hitter Autumn Bailey. MSU lost two of its last four matches to end the regular season but will appear in the round of 16 for the first time since 2013.
“We struggled a little bit at the end of conference,” Michigan State coach Cathy George said. “You know it’s good to see that we gained a little momentum here. We started to get back at the things we wanted to do.”
The biggest surprise advancing to the next round is unseeded Illinois, which won a pair of five-setters in the first two rounds in Seattle to reach the regional semifinals in Chris Tamas’ first season as coach.
Illinois trailed No. 8 seed Washington 2-1 in sets and was down three points in the fourth before mounting a comeback that stunned the Huskies on their home floor.
“We took a time out (trailing) 13-10 in the fourth period and just decided that we weren’t going away,” the former Husker assistant Tamas said Saturday night. “We need to crank it up on our side and just make sure that we are taking it one point at a time and not (getting) caught up with what had happened previously.”
Illinois’ reward is a trip to State College, Pennsylvania, where three of the four teams represent the Big Ten. The Illini will face Michigan State in one regional semifinal in a rematch of the Spartans’ 3-0 sweep in East Lansing on Nov. 10. In the other regional semifinal, No. 1 Penn State faces Missouri.
While the Nittany Lions are the only Big Ten team to have the chance to reach the final four in Kansas City playing on their home floor, each of the other regional sites will have one conference representative.
Minnesota travels to Gainesville, Florida, in search of its third straight trip to the final four. The Gophers will have to get through No. 10 seed USC, with No. 3 Florida hosting No. 15 UCLA in the other semifinal.
Nebraska has already beaten three top 20 teams on the road this season — Penn State, Purdue, and Michigan State — and will need another couple road wins to reach the final four for the third consecutive year. The Huskers will face Colorado on Friday at 1 p.m. after host Kentucky, the No. 4 seed, plays No. 13 BYU at 11 a.m.
It leaves the Big Ten with an outside chance to make history. The conference has never put more than two teams in any final four, and no final four has ever been comprised of four teams from one conference. The Pac-12 did boast three of the final four teams in 2007, 2006, 2004, and 1985.
Some more big road wins will be necessary for the Big Ten to assure a coronation of one of its own in Kansas City. But there might not be a better conference — or a better season — to prepare the league’s six remaining hopefuls for a run at that legacy.
“The Big Ten prepares you to be a great road team,” Cook said. “If you can go 9-1 on the road in the Big Ten, that’s pretty good.”
Nebraska vs. Colorado
When: 1 p.m. Friday
Where: Lexington, Kentucky
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM