LINCOLN — If there ever has been a time when the Big Ten was stronger or deeper in volleyball, Nebraska coach John Cook can’t remember it.
In the Huskers’ minds, the depth of quality teams makes winning a league title even more difficult than hoisting an NCAA championship trophy.
To illustrate his point Monday, Cook compared the NCAA tournament to the Indy 500 auto race while equating the Big Ten schedule with the Dakar Rally, a nearly 6,000-mile international off-road marathon.
“You’ve got to go back-to-back on the road, back-to-back nights (in the Big Ten). It’s over 10 weeks,” Cook said. “You can’t have a bad weekend, or it could cost you the championship. I just think it’s a longer, tougher test. The NCAA tournament is basically three weeks, six matches to win it.”
While the Huskers captured the college game’s top prize last year, they still are eyeing a conference title that has proven elusive for every player on this roster.
NU’s only Big Ten title came in 2011, its first year in the league, and to capture the conference crown again will mean navigating a 10-week slog against seven Top 25 opponents, plus another that is receiving votes in the coaches poll.
No. 1 Nebraska (9-0) won’t get the chance to pace itself as the conference race begins this week. The schedule makers will send NU on the road for three matches in five days to open league play, starting this weekend against No. 22 Michigan and No. 20 Michigan State, both 11-1.
The Huskers follow up that trip with a match Sept. 28 at Illinois, which is third among teams receiving votes outside the Top 25.
“Three road matches to open the Big Ten is a great challenge for us,” Cook said, “so hopefully it’s going to bring out the best in us.”
It did in 2015. Last year, the Huskers went 9-1 on the road in Big Ten play, with the only loss coming in five sets to Ohio State the night after Nebraska earned a five-set win at top-ranked Penn State.
Road trips helped shape the core of last year’s title team. Players bonded on buses and in hotels, and found their mettle by playing in unfamiliar environments. The Huskers earned road victories against all three teams they’ll see in the opening stretch.
“It’s like the bunker mentality,” Cook said. “You’re in the foxhole together, and, ‘Let’s go do this.’ I actually think they play a little freer on the road.”
The challenges remain as tough this year — if not more difficult — if this week’s coaches poll is evidence. Nebraska remained a unanimous No. 1 Monday, followed by conference mates No. 2 Minnesota and No. 3 Wisconsin.
The Golden Gophers have nonconference wins over four top-20 teams, and Wisconsin rallied from two sets down on Sunday for a win at previous No. 2 Texas.
Purdue, which moved up to No. 10 this week, was picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten but scored a five-set win at No. 11 Stanford earlier this season.
Winning a Big Ten championship among such rivals is significant, Cook said. But anyone in serious pursuit of the league crown can use it as a means to an even greater prize — just as the Huskers did a year ago when they finished second in the Big Ten en route to the national title.
“It’s pretty mind-boggling how strong our conference is,” he said. “But, again, I think that helps you prepare for the NCAA tournament. You’ve got to go in and be able to play great volleyball every night.”
Huskers, Jays use replay
Saturday’s win over Creighton provided Nebraska not only with its toughest test of the nonconference season, but also the most extensive use this season of the instant replay challenge system.
Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth used all three of her team’s challenges while Cook challenged two calls.
NU is in its second year using the replay system, which will be used in the NCAA tournament beginning this year. Cook said he was largely satisfied with the structure of replay challenges, but felt each challenge delayed the match for too long.
“I just think they take too much time figuring it out,” he said.
“Those refs take forever. I think there should be a time limit on it.”
For matches at Nebraska that are televised, replay officials use the TV feed to review challenged calls. For non-televised matches, NU will rely on the HuskerVision video footage for reviews.
The Big Ten again has allowed individual schools to decide if they want to implement replay for home matches this season. Michigan State is using replay for the first time, according to a Michigan State spokesperson. A Michigan spokesperson was not immediately available to answer whether the system was in use.