Badgers Volleyball

By ERIC OLSON AP Sports Writer

Wisconsin will open the reconfigured women’s volleyball season ranked first in the nation, a status that elicited little more than a shrug from coach Kelly Sheffield even though it’s the first time the Badgers have been a preseason No. 1.

“You’d certainly rather have a team ranked No. 1 than 101,” he said. “But it’s not something that’s built up, not something that’s talked down. When you go this long — 13 months — without playing a match, there’s so much enthusiasm for finally getting to play it wouldn’t have mattered where our ranking came out.”

Women’s volleyball will be the first of the NCAA fall sports to play this spring after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted most conferences to cancel or shorten their 2020 fall seasons and the NCAA to call off the national tournament. The Big Ten and Pac-12 moved their entire seasons to spring; the ACC and SEC will pick up where they left off.

The Big 12 had a conference-only schedule in the fall and Texas went 14-0 to win the championship. Four Big 12 two-game series that were postponed because of COVID-19 outbreaks will be made up this spring, and all teams will be allowed to schedule nonconference matches.

The spring season begins Friday in the Big Ten, Pac-12 and several smaller conferences. The SEC opens next week and the ACC in mid-February. The Big 12 hasn’t released a schedule.

The NCAA Tournament will go from 64 to 48 teams this year, with selections announced April 4. Results of teams that played in the fall will be considered by the selection committee. The national semifinals and final will be played in Omaha, Nebraska, April 22 and 24.

Wisconsin returns five starters from the team that was national runner-up to Stanford in 2019. Among them are middle blocker Dana Rettke, the 2019 Big Ten player of the year and the Badgers’ first three-time first-team All-American.

Texas enters the spring No. 2 and has locked up an NCAA bid as conference champion. As of Wednesday, the Longhorns were scheduled only to play two makeup matches against TCU before the tournament.

Third-ranked Stanford will be going for a third straight national title and fifth Final Four appearance in a row without seven of the 10 players who were on the floor in the 2019 title match.

No. 4 Kentucky was the only unbeaten SEC team in the fall and posted three-set sweeps in five of its eight matches, including four in a row to end the spring.

No. 5 Nebraska brings back six starters from the team that went 28-5 and reached an NCAA regional final in 2019. Coach John Cook, who had teams win national titles in 2015 and ’17, said the ranking suits him fine.

“All I know is the last two times we were ranked fifth,” he said, “we won national championships.”