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Michella Chester | NCAA.com | April 8, 2021

The top storylines of the 2020-21 college volleyball tournament

Full breakdown and analysis of the 2020-21 DI women's volleyball bracket

The 2020-21 Division I women's volleyball bracket has been unveiled and we officially have an NCAA volleyball tournament this year! It might be different — yes, with a 48-team bracket instead of the typical 64, but it will still be a fun one. 

So, let's get ready for what is soon to come! Here are the biggest storylines and questions to be answered in the tournament this year:

1. Can Wisconsin make it back to the national championship game? 

It has been the narrative all season long: Wisconsin fell short in the national title game in 2019 but returned almost all of its star-studded roster from last season. The Badgers were rightfully on top of the preseason rankings and have been at the top all season long, as the team to beat. Enter postponements and COVID-19 related cancellations, and you now have a team that only got to play 11 matches compared to the 15-20 that some other teams played. Matches against Nebraska and Penn State as well as one match against Minnesota were cancelled. We got to see just one top caliber matchup against Minnesota, where the Badgers came out victorious. Dana Rettke, the returning first-team All-American leads the team in so many ways. But statistically speaking, she has a team-best 3.29 kills per set and 1.29 blocks per set. She is also joined by an All-American setter, Sydney Hilley, and hitters Molly Haggerty and Grace Loberg. This team is not lacking experience. They have the most of almost any team in the tournament this year. So, if there is any year for this team to win a championship, this would be the group to do it. 

2. Can Kentucky make history this season? 

Madison Lilley said it: this team is looking to make history this season. The Wildcats finished the regular season by making history: the highest regular-season finish in program history for Kentucky in the AVCA coaches' poll at No. 2. Now, they will compete in the NCAA tournament with a chance to make some more. Here is the thing, though: they haven't played outside of the SEC all season, and they are just one of two teams in the conference that have been ranked in the top 10 this year. The other is Florida, with whom they split the series with this year. Last season, in 2019, Kentucky made it through the second round of the tournament before falling in the regional semifinals to Washington, a strong Pac-12 team, in a four set match. This year, though, they are the No. 2 seed and received a first-round bye. It is possible that they could see Purdue in the regional finals before advancing to the national semifinals. That could be the hardest test, considering the Boilermakers have been a team capable of playing with some of the top Big Ten teams this season. This is a storyline we should all be excited to see play out. 

3. Can Nebraska pull off a home-state fairytale? 

We know this is a unique season. One reason is because the entire tournament will be held in Omaha, Nebraska, at just one site. This is a sure change from the usual tournament, where the top 16 seeds receive the advantage of hosting a regional. This year, Nebraska gets the honor of playing extremely close to home. With the entire tournament being held in Omaha, and limited fans permitted to be in attendance, the Huskers could very well have a large "home" crowd behind them. Plus, we are talking one of the most devoted volleyball fan bases in the country: Husker nation. It would certainly be a fairytale to make it all the way from the first round to hoisting the trophy in your home state. 

The Huskers are another team with top-tier talent and experience this season. Lauren Stivrins and Lexi Sun are seniors, and I'm sure, are longing to make it back to the big stage after an off-year last season. They had a young group last year. This year the Huskers are a well-seasoned, capable national title contender. 

4. Will Texas get vengeance from its NCAA tournament upset last season? 

We all remember it. The No. 2 Texas Longhorns were a favorite to compete for a national title in 2019. They battled back and forth with Baylor all season for the No. 1 and 2 spots. Then came the NCAA tournament where they were shocked by unseeded Louisville in the regional semifinals, marking the biggest upset of the tournament. Minnesota then took down Louisville in the regional finals before falling to Stanford in the national semifinals. 

So, the question is, how much weight do you put on a team on a mission? A team with mostly the same players from last year looking to change the narrative this year? 

5. Who will be the big surprise this year? 

There is always at least one, right? Although volleyball is not as unpredictable as say, March Madness, where it seems anyone can take down a 1-seed on any given day, it is rare that the tournament is completely chalk. Last season, Louisville took down Texas, and unseeded Cincinnati also beat 6-seed Pitt, a team that had hardly lost all season. The national semifinals weren't completely chalk either, with No. 1 Baylor, No. 3 Stanford, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 7 Minnesota with the absence of Texas. 

Could it be a Pac-12 team that disturbs the rankings? Washington and Oregon or maybe even Utah certainly have star potential. Purdue is a 7-seed from the Big Ten that we know can beat big teams and one that has a lot of experience as well. Or, perhaps some teams will make it out of the first round and make a big run for it. That is the fun of the tournament, right? 


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