No. 7-seeded Nebraska volleyball will begin title defense at home — and could see Minnesota again

LINCOLN — If Nebraska is going to reach its fourth straight Final Four, the Huskers will get there before nearly any other championship hopeful, and they’ll probably have to knock off some familiar faces to do it.

Nebraska was given the No. 7 national seed when the brackets were unveiled Sunday and placed in the Minneapolis Regional, where the Huskers will hope to spend a couple of weekends — Minneapolis also hosts the Final Four.

It’s no small task, however. If the seeds hold, the Huskers will be matched with SEC champion Kentucky in the regional semifinals, a rematch of last year’s regional final, which NU won in four sets in Lexington to advance to the Final Four in Kansas City.

Then, a trip to the national semifinals would hinge on a possible third match of the year with Minnesota, which has beaten the Huskers twice this season. The Big Ten champion Gophers are the No. 2 overall seed.

The Huskers and Gophers aren’t the only Big Ten teams that could renew acquaintances before the Final Four. The committee also placed No. 3 Illinois and No. 6 Wisconsin in the same regional. NU coach John Cook said with Big Ten teams making up half of the top 10 national seeds some rematches couldn’t be helped.

“I’m not surprised that a lot of Big Ten teams are going to be matching up,” Cook said. “Like they said in the (tournament selection show), five of the top 10 seeds are from the Big Ten. It’s hard to not have people match up.

“It looks like a tough tournament. Everybody has tough challenges in every bracket.”

Nebraska will open the tournament at 7 p.m. Friday at the Devaney Center against Hofstra (25-7), which won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament to reach the postseason. NU also hosted the Pride in the 2014 NCAA tournament, sweeping Hofstra in the first round.

Arizona and Missouri will play in the other first-round match in Lincoln on Friday. The Huskers haven’t faced their old Big 12 rivals Missouri since 2010 and haven’t played Arizona since 2002.

“I’m excited we’re at home,” Cook said. “I think it’s going to be some really high-level teams that are coming here, so that’s going to be fun for us and our fans.”

It will be the 34th time Nebraska begins the NCAA tournament at home as it tries to reach the regional round for the seventh straight season.

“It’s nice to see all of our workouts from the summer and all the big matches that we played are finally paying off,” senior libero Kenzie Maloney said, “and we’re going to get to show people what we’re all about now in the tournament.”

Before the brackets were unveiled on ESPNU, Cook told the players they should take confidence from being one of the most improved teams in the country. This year’s club with seven newcomers and three freshmen starters, Cook said, stacks up as well or better against Nebraska’s three recent teams that reached the Final Four.

“We’re playing some of our best volleyball now, which is what every team wants to be doing.” senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke said. “So hopefully we can just continue to go up.”

Pac-12 champion Stanford was given the overall No. 1 seed and could await a potential showdown between No. 8 seed Penn State and No. 9 seed Creighton in the regional final. No. 4 seed BYU also is across the bracket from No. 5 Texas.

And the tournament could pit two former Husker assistants against each other if Illinois, coached by Chris Tamas, meets Dani Busboom Kelly’s Louisville team in the second round in Champaign.

Parity has created pitfalls in the bracket for every national title hopeful, Cook said. Going into last year’s tournament, he didn’t think he had a club that would win the title, and despite the Huskers’ unbeaten November, he admitted NU wouldn’t be considered one of the favorites this season.

But playing in the country’s top volleyball league prepares you for December, he said. The Huskers took it on the chin with five October losses to top-10 teams, but they’ve since landed a few blows of their own, too. With the postseason here, even Nebraska’s newcomers know what it’s like to be in the main event.

“We’ve already played Final Four matches,” Cook said. “So this team, you can say you’re worn down or battle tested. I just think for a young team like this to go through all those matches we went through and that stretch we went through, even though we didn’t find success, it really taught us the level we have to play at or the mindset we have to play at.”

NCAA volleyball tournament: Nebraska receives No. 7 seed, Creighton No. 9

Creighton volleyball will be making return trips to the NCAA tournament in 2018.

The Jays earned the No. 9 seed and will host South Dakota in the first round.

Creighton (28-4, 20-0) won the Big East regular season and tournament championships for the fifth straight year. CU defeated Marquette 26-28, 25-22, 25-21, 25-21 in the Big East championship on Saturday — its third win against the Golden Eagles this season.

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