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The start of the Big Ten volleyball schedule usually coincides with the arrival of fall, when the leaves crunch underfoot and the sweaters come out of storage. Because of the pandemic, though, this season won’t even begin until next year.

The ground will be frozen and the holidays a memory Jan. 22, when the volleyball season is expected to start. Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon confirmed Thursday the Big Ten likely will play a 22-match, conference-only schedule, leading to a 48-team NCAA tournament in April. In the meantime, the Gophers are making the best of the extended preparation time.

They began limited team activities in early August, forging ahead after the Big Ten announced fall sports would be delayed until spring. That gave them a head start toward Nov. 2, when full-fledged practices will begin.

“We started on Aug. 6, and the Big Ten made the announcement on Aug. 11,” McCutcheon said. “As a group, we decided that since we were there and in our bubble, we’d just keep going for a little bit. So we got a really nice three-week foundational training block in place.

“Because we had that nice foundation, we were able to build off of that. There’s been a lot of learning and a lot of teaching, continuing to work on fundamental skill development. It’s been going really well.”

McCutcheon said not competing this fall has been “different, and a little surreal.” Per NCAA rules, the Gophers have been training for eight hours per week, split evenly between volleyball-related workouts and strength and conditioning time. That increases to 20 hours per week in November.

While they practice, other conferences — such as the ACC, SEC and Big 12 — are playing shortened fall schedules ranging from eight to 16 matches. McCutcheon has no idea whether playing now will give those teams any advantage when the NCAA tournament field is selected April 4. But he said Big Ten coaches like the league’s proposed 22-match format, which has yet to be finalized.

“That’s something we thought had some merit to it,” McCutcheon said. “In this day and age, merit is going to be defined by our ability to ensure our student-athletes’ health and safety as best we can, then trying to put in a meaningful schedule that will give everyone in the conference the best chance of proving their mettle when it comes time to figure out at-large bids for the [NCAA] tournament.

“With no nonconference play, your ranking within the conference has a lot of meaning. If we can expand it to 22 matches instead of 20, we get another couple of chances to all be compared.”

The Gophers’ 2020 recruiting class was ranked No. 1 in the nation, and delaying competition until January has given those freshmen extra time to adapt. McCutcheon hasn’t begun thinking about lineups yet, but he said the freshmen “have been able to hit the ground running,” integrating into a group he praised for its work ethic and character.

As excited as he is to see them play, he’s perfectly OK with waiting.

“The whole year is a little off, so adding another layer of not playing in the fall is not that much of a stretch,” McCutcheon said. “We’re just excited we’re going to have a crack at it in January.’’