College volleyball FAQ - Season overview, Big Ten and Pac-12 favorites and more

Dana Rettke leads the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers into the spring 2021 season. Tom Lynn/Wisconsin Athletic Communications

Desperate times call for innovation, which is why Wisconsin's Dana Rettke used her home's roof for solo volleyball practice during the spring and summer lockdown.

"I'm from the Chicago area; gyms were closed," Rettke said. "So I'd go outside in my backyard and throw the ball up onto my roof and pass against the wall."

Of course, "roof" can be a verb in volleyball -- it's when you block a ball straight down to the floor -- and the 6-foot-8 middle blocker Rettke has roofed countless opponents as a three-time first-team All-American.

Now, she and the Badgers hope to make another run at the national championship. They were the runners-up to Stanford last season, and start this season Friday as the No. 1 ranked team in the American Volleyball Coaches Association spring poll.

Rettke and setter Sydney Hilley sat at the dais at the final four in Pittsburgh last season disappointed in their 3-0 final loss, but already raring to go for 2020, as both would be returning as seniors. But with the Big Ten not starting this volleyball season until late January because of COVID-19 concerns, they had a long wait.

"I actually calculated it out," Rettke said. "Since the national championship match, our first match will be one year, one month and one day from that game. None of us have gone that long without volleyball. There were some positives to take out of it, though: A lot of us did some personal growing and reflection. But at the same time, we were all super hungry too get back on the court. And after last season, I think we felt like we had something to prove."

With the sport's dominant leagues -- the Big Ten and Pac-12 -- set to begin play Friday, here's a look at women's volleyball in 2020-21.

What is the season setup?

Some conferences played the majority of their matches in the fall, others are splitting them between fall and spring, and others are only in the spring. Here's the breakdown for the Power 5 leagues:

ACC: Had a fall schedule of eight conference matches, and will have spring schedule with 10 league matches starting in March. Three teams will go to one site each weekend and play two matches apiece. Teams also are allowed to schedule non-conference matches in February. Some of those "non-conference" matches may actually be ACC foes that are geographically close, but they won't count in the conference standings.

Big Ten: 22 conference-only matches beginning Friday. Teams will play each other back-to-back on Friday/Saturday at the same location.

Big 12: Had a conference-only 16-match fall schedule. In the spring, teams will make up any league matches that were postponed from fall, and can schedule non-conference matches.

Pac-12: 22 conference-only matches beginning Friday. Teams will play each other back-to-back on Friday/Sunday, with most at the same location. However, schools that are geographically close -- Arizona and Arizona State, Cal and Stanford, UCLA and USC, and Oregon and Oregon State -- will play a home and home series.

SEC: Had a conference-only eight-match fall schedule, will have a 16-match conference schedule in the spring, starting Jan. 29. Teams will face each other on consecutive days -- mostly on weekends -- at the same site.

What will the NCAA tournament look like?

It hasn't been decided yet where all the matches will be played. But the final four is still in Omaha, Nebraska, which is where it was originally scheduled in December. Now the dates will be April 22-24. The field is reduced from 64 to 48 teams. Among the conferences that normally have one of the 32 automatic bids, two aren't competing this season: the Big West, which includes past NCAA champions Hawaii and Long Beach State, and the Ivy League.

Suffice to say, with leagues playing at different times and very few non-conference matches, the selection committee will have its hands full trying to put together a smaller field in a year where the RPI won't provide as much guidance.

"It's going to be a challenge for the committee," said Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield. "I think they'll probably lean on the regional advisory committees (there are five, made up of coaches) more. The eye test is going to be pretty important. When you're not playing schools from other leagues very much, that's what you have to go by. That [committee] room would be pretty fun to be televised."

Who are the Big Ten favorites?

Wisconsin, as mentioned, comes in the top-ranked team in the country for the spring, with Rettke and Hilley both AVCA first-team All-Americans last season.

"We feel like we haven't done anything to earn that yet," Hilley said of the ranking. "But it's a good thing to keep our standards high and make sure we're performing in practice like we're the No. 1 team in the country."

Other Big Ten teams in the spring poll top 10 are No. 5 Nebraska, No. 7 Minnesota and No. 9 Penn State. The Nittany Lions are seven-time national champions, while the Huskers have five NCAA titles. Nebraska has the goal again of going to the final four in nearby Omaha. The three previous times the event was held there -- 2006, 2008 and 2015 -- the Huskers made it, and won the championship twice.

Who are the Pac-12 favorites?

There are three Pac-12 teams in the AVCA top 10: No. 3 Stanford, No. 8 Washington and No. 10 Utah.

But Stanford, which won three of the past four NCAA titles and has nine overall, is in limbo to start the season. Its first four matches are canceled. Because of COVID-19 regulations in Santa Clara County where the school is located, the Cardinal can't practice or play matches indoors at Maples Pavilion. The Stanford men's and women's basketball teams have relocated so they can play, with home games in Santa Cruz, California. For now, though, the volleyball team hasn't relocated, and its practices are outdoors.

The Cardinal lost one of the best classes in volleyball history with last year's seniors, led by final four MVP Kathryn Plummer. Thus, Stanford had some rebuilding to do this season anyway, although that's a relative term regarding the most successful program in the sport.

The league's coaches don't agree with the AVCA poll; they picked Utah, led by returning first-team All-American Dani Drews, to finish first, with Washington second and Stanford third. The Utes gave Stanford its only scare in last season's NCAA tournament, taking the Cardinal to five sets in the regional semifinals. Stanford's other five NCAA matches were sweeps.

Washington made the Elite Eight last year, falling to Baylor.

"The word of the year is flexibility," said Washington coach Keegan Cook. "We're going into these Pac-12 matches not feeling as confident as you normally would with anything -- your lineup decisions, roles for each player. We have to learn on the fly."

What teams were the best in the fall?

The Nov. 25 final AVCA fall poll -- which ranked teams from the ACC, Big 12, SEC, and Sun Belt -- had undefeated Texas (14-0) and Kentucky (8-0) as 1-2. They were followed by Baylor, Notre Dame and Louisville.

Two-time national champion Texas is perennially in the final four mix. And even with the challenges of this season, you can expect the same. The Longhorns have two postponed Big 12 matches to make up in the spring, both against TCU, and they will play some non-conference matches, too, to try to stay sharp for the NCAA tournament.

Baylor made a breakthrough last season by making the program's first Final Four. The Bears went 13-3 in league play this fall, with the losses being five-setters on the road at Kansas and Texas (twice). Senior outside hitter Yossiana Pressley, the national player of the year last season, averaged 5.18 points per set, second in the Big 12 to Texas junior outside hitter Logan Eggleston (5.52).

Louisville made a splash last season by reaching a regional final after upsetting Texas. Kentucky made the Sweet 16.

Kentucky coach Craig Skinner said with the SEC's 24 matches split between fall and spring, "This is going to be like a baseball season in terms of length, so we needed to figure out the best times to rest. So basically from Nov. 14-Jan. 8, the players were working out on their own. We're just trying to be cognizant of physical and mental health, but we're excited to get a chance to play again now."