And so the Road to Omaha begins.
Here in Volley Town.
On Sunday afternoon, the NCAA will announce the 48-team field for the 2021 volleyball tournament. And Omaha will prepare for a different kind of big sporting event.
We’ve hosted eight teams at the College World Series. And NCAA basketball's first and second weekends.
Hundreds of Olympic-hopeful swimmers and their families and coaches invade Omaha for one week every four years.
Now, the entire NCAA volleyball tournament is coming to Omaha. It starts April 14 with 48 teams. It will end April 24 with one national champion.
It’s the NCAA’s version of the Omaha Presidents Day tournament, when hundreds of youth select teams take over CHI Health Center.
It’s the NCAA’s version of the 2021 basketball tournaments, played in Indianapolis and San Antonio. Except it’s all in one venue.
Call it the NCAA Volley Bubble.
This is a pandemic adjustment, of course. The NCAA moved volleyball to the winter/spring, then picked up the entire tourney and moved it to downtown Omaha.
Not just because the postponed 2020 Final Four was scheduled here.
We have the venue that can handle 48 teams. The hotels. The airport. And a hub of health care expertise.
And, the NCAA has confidence in Omaha. We’ll do it right.
Now, who’s in charge of the weather?
“What I’m excited about is my coaching friends all think of Omaha as this cold town,” Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said.
“People who hang around the College World Series see Omaha at its best. I’m hoping we can get good weather so volleyball can see that side of it.”
So no April blizzards, OK?
With any luck, there will be no snowflakes or interruptions. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament had one team (VCU) withdraw because of COVID-19 cases.
That’s probably better than anyone expected. Because even though you quarantine teams and take all the precautions, you never know.
Here’s what we do know about Volley Town:
The teams will arrive in Omaha next weekend to begin daily COVID-19 testing and settle into routines before April 14.
They’ll live at the Hilton, Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn, Courtyard Marriott, Doubletree, Hyatt Place and Homewood Suites.
The first three rounds will be played on four competition courts in the convention center. There will be up to eight more courts for practicing.
The CHI Health Center Arena won’t be used until the fourth round, or the regional finals.
Some have asked why the NCAA did not use Creighton’s Sokol Arena or UNO’s Baxter Arena and perhaps the Devaney Center in Lincoln.
The easy answer is the bubble. Most of the hotels are walking distance to CHI Health Center. The tournament environment is easier to control under one roof.
Control is shaky in a pandemic. You take all you can get.
The Huskers and Jays will provide local flavor. Home-court advantage, right?
Not exactly. Only family will be allowed to watch the first three rounds inside the convention center. It will be a little like the perimeter courts at Wimbledon.
Fans will be admitted for the regional finals April 19. It will be to 25% capacity, or about 4,000.
So fans can catch their teams on TV, right? The first three rounds will be shown on ESPN3 and some matches on ESPNU.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your apps.
Nebraska’s large media contingent will watch Husker matches just like the fans: on ESPN3 or ESPNU until the final three rounds. Media are not allowed in the building until the regional final. And all interviews will be done on Zoom.
If you have a question, please press the “raise hand” button.
NU coach John Cook said he “raised hell” with the NCAA about the flooring used for the matches.
His preference is for Taraflex floors, and that type of floor from NU, CU and UNO will be used.
Teams will not be confined to their hotels as tightly as the NCAA basketball teams, which were basically locked into their quarters.
“We’ll be able to go out and walk around, sit in a park,” Cook said.
“I talked to Fred (Hoiberg, NU men’s basketball coach) about it and he said he thought a reason why the Big Ten struggled so much in the tournament was that they played their conference tournament in Indy.
“They never left when the NCAA tournament started. You have to stay in your rooms. Eventually you just turn into zombies.”
Cook said the NCAA contacted NU’s strength coaches about setting up weights for the players. So the NCAA isn’t making the mistake it made by not having anything for the women’s basketball teams.
As for food, Cook said he met with NU's nutrition staff about “getting creative so we’re not just eating hotel food."
“I heard horror stories about basketball, where they brought in box food and who knows how long it was in the box.”
The Big Ten will be present. The league has six teams ranked in the top 11 of the AVCA poll.
How many Big Ten teams will make the Final Four? Better question: How will the NCAA committee seed the Big Ten, which didn't play nonconference games this season?
There are bound to be more questions about the committee’s bracket when it’s released.
So many teams missed matches because of COVID. NU didn’t get to play big matches against Wisconsin or Penn State.
Maybe the Huskers and Badgers will get that match — in the Final Four.
The best teams normally earn home court for the first two rounds of the NCAA tourney. How will playing those early matches on neutral courts in the convention center impact the games? Will there be more upsets?
Nebraska has won the national title two of the three times Omaha hosted the championship. But the arena was filled with Husker fans then.
What are the Huskers' chances with just more than 4,000 in the building?
In such an odd year, who knows? Not Cook.
“We’re going to handle today,” Cook said. “Win today. That’s the best we can do. There’s going to be a lot of unknowns.”
Welcome to Volley Town, the largest select tournament in college volleyball history. With a notable exception.
There’s just one trophy.