‘I think it’s ridiculous we’re at 48’: John Cook pushes for late changes to NCAA Tournament

John Cook, who won his 600th match as Nebraska’s head coach last week, watches the action in the third set in a match against Iowa.

BRENT C. WAGNER Lincoln Journal Star

Two of the top volleyball coaches in the country are making a late push for a 64-team NCAA Tournament.

The entire tournament will be played in Omaha from April 13-24. The tournament selection show is just 12 days away.

Kelly Sheffield, the coach of top-ranked Wisconsin, and four-time national champion coach John Cook would like to see 64 teams in the field as it has in recent years. Currently, the plan is for 48 teams to converge upon Omaha.

The topic came up last week as the nation watched the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments go on with 64. Those sports had their tournaments canceled last year, which wasn’t the case for volleyball.

On Monday, Sheffield posted on social media that six months ago when the coaches learned there would only be 48 teams in the tournament, they were just happy to have a season. Now after seeing the basketball tournaments go on as scheduled, Sheffield says the NCAA should do the right thing and increase the volleyball tournament back to 64 teams.

Cook was asked about the topic during his weekly news conference on Tuesday.

“I totally agree with (Sheffield),” Cook said. “I think it’s ridiculous we’re at 48. Basketball didn’t cut back, why are we cutting back? Football didn’t cut back, why are we cutting back? Especially the fact that it’s all in one place. You’re really looking at 16 more teams, and it’s all going to be in one place anyways, so they can make that adjustment.”

Last week the NCAA staff apologized after differences in the men’s and women’s tournaments were revealed on social media, such as the size of the weight rooms for the athletes and COVID-19 testing procedures. Several women’s basketball coaches spoke out on the men’s and women’s tourneys not being equitable.

“The NCAA is under a lot of fire right now, especially with women’s sports,” Cook said. “They’re going to pay a big price, I think. This would be one way they could start showing that women’s sports are important. I think they lumped volleyball in with other sports that they’re trying to limit the championships, but the fact we’ve gone to one place saves money. To me, it’s a no-brainer. I’m glad he tweeted something about it. Maybe they’ll listen.”

The volleyball tournament will have 32 automatic qualifiers and 16 at-large selections. If Wisconsin maintains its current lead in the Big Ten standings, No. 5 Nebraska (12-2) will be among the teams vying for one of the at-large bids.

Players set to return: Defensive specialists Hayley Densberger and Emma Gabel weren’t able to play in Nebraska’s last match due to COVID-19 contact-tracing reasons.

The players were negative on their most recent COVID-19 test, and Cook says they could have remained with the team but chose to be extra cautious and stay home.

Densberger and Gabel were scheduled to rejoin the team on Tuesday.

“We’re trying to follow the strictest protocols and be as safe as we can with all of this, just because we’ve seen what’s happened with Michigan, Michigan State and our men’s basketball team,” Cook said. “Once it gets going, and one of these new variants, it can wipe out the whole team. We’re just trying to be as careful as we can.”

Professional league nears finish: The professional volleyball league playing in Dallas is down to its final week of matches. Former Huskers Jordan Larson and Kelly Hunter are ranked first and seventh, respectively, on the leaderboard in the league’s unique format where players earn points for wins, individual statistics and MVP awards. Ex-Husker Briana Holman is also in the 47-player league.

The league is different because captains draft new teams for each week. Several of the matches have been on TV.

“I think it’s great that we’re trying pro volleyball in the United States,” Cook said. “The format for me is really hard to follow, and the teams are really hard to follow. I can only get connected to either Jordan’s team or Kelly’s team. … I think they’re having fun, and it’s good for women’s sports to a take a shot at this.”

Creighton ends lengthy streak: Creighton dropped out of the coaches’ poll after a loss to Kansas State last week. The Bluejays (8-3) had been ranked in 63 straight polls dating to the 2016 season.