The 2009 NCAA women's soccer tournament field was announced Monday night, with 64 teams in the mix. As we prepare for the first game to kick off Thursday, we've got the answers to 5 Burning Questions on the bracket.
1. What the heck happened to Portland's seed?
In light of Portland's announcement that Michelle Enyeart will miss the NCAA tournament with a knee injury sustained with five seconds left in the first half of the regular-season finale, the team's unexpected drop to a No. 2 seed seems almost minor by comparison. Every team deals with injuries -- Enyeart, UCLA's Kara Lang and North Carolina's Nikki Washington are among the stars missing in action this year -- but the Pilots seem particularly cursed when it comes to making it to November with their key pieces in place.
Yet the decision to not only seed Portland second, setting up what would be its third quarterfinal in the past four years against UCLA in Los Angeles, but place it on the same side of the bracket as Stanford, was one of the more baffling moves in recent memory.
Selection committee chairman Paul Bradshaw of Baylor offered his group's thought process.
"We spent a good amount of the time laboring over seeding, and in particular, the team that you mentioned and certainly for that last No. 1 spot," Bradshaw said in response to a question about Portland. "I think the committee, when it comes to seeding, is really looking at what those teams have done against the very best teams. That's truly how you really earn a seed is really proving yourself against the best of the best.
"And ultimately, the committee just felt like the four teams that earned the No. 1 seeds had done more against the very top of the field than anybody else."
Nobody need accuse the committee members of taking their duties lightly. As Bradshaw recounted, they didn't wrap up their debates until many hours after midnight turned Sunday into Monday.
But they still got this one wrong.
Based on the last RPI released publicly, through Nov. 3, Portland had a 10-1-0 record against teams ranked in the top 50, including a 6-1-0 record against top-50 teams that made the NCAA tournament. The Pilots outscored their opponents 24-5 in those games, losing only a 3-1 decision at Texas A&M.
To be fair, Bradshaw noted that in the case of the teams at the top of the seeding, the committee narrows its focus to an even more select group of opponents, closer to the top 10.
That still doesn't explain how UCLA edged ahead of Portland. Thanks to a schedule heavy on Pac-10 teams, Portland posted a 9-0-0 record against common opponents with UCLA (the Bruins went 8-0-1 in those games). The only win of consequence that UCLA had beyond those games was a 3-0 win against Florida over Labor Day weekend. Sure, it played Stanford and North Carolina. I was at both games, and the Bruins were played off the field in both, losing 2-0 and 7-2, respectively. It's incomprehensible that the Florida win was the deciding factor.
In this case, it feels like the committee let the task of counting trees get in the way of seeing the forest.
2. Which team was the biggest snub?
Arizona State saved its season with last weekend's sweep against Oregon State and Oregon, earning an at-large bid despite a 2-6-2 record in the Pac-10.
Missouri closed its regular season with a conference title after going 7-1-2 in the Big 12. The only problem for the Tigers was they still had a conference tournament to play. They lost in the semifinals and won't get a chance to take that regular-season crown to the NCAA tournament.
Bradshaw said the committee didn't focus on conference record as an isolated factor, but that 2-6-2 mark still proved hard for some to swallow.
"There were certainly some committee members that struggled with the record within the conference itself," Bradshaw said of Arizona State. "But in the end, the committee just felt like based upon the entire body of work, the team was worthy of placement into the field."
There is a legitimate case, based on strength of schedule, to be made for both decisions. But if you win the Big 12 and don't get into the tournament, you've got a right to feel snubbed.
3. What is the best place to be for the first two rounds?
If you're not currently employed as a coach at Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Santa Clara or USC, it's the campus of Santa Clara. Back in the field of 64 after a one-year absence, the Broncos earned a seed and the right to host (and consequently, the right not to play at nearby Stanford until and unless they reach the third round).
But with minimizing travel always a factor, some first- and second-round pods will always be more difficult than others. And Santa Clara welcomes some dangerous leftovers in first-round foe Michigan State -- which has two premier offensive talents in Laura Heyboer and Lauren Hill -- as well as Oklahoma State, a team on as blistering a hot streak as any team in the field, and USC with faces remaining from its 2007 championship.
4. Which bandwagon is worth hopping a ride on?
Experiencing Marquette begins long before the whistle blows. It might begin with the garden gnome dubbed "Little Nugget" who watches over the team from the bench, always looking at the goal the team is shooting at. On a cold postseason day, it might be the sight of coach Markus Roeders wearing shorts. Not soccer shorts, mind you, just regular khaki shorts.
Superstition dictates he continue wearing the shorts; plus, as he puts it, he's "warm by nature."
It's a little left of normal, but what else would you expect from someone who grew up with parents who were puppeteers from the German version of Sesame Street?
"It was probably a little bit of different type of upbringing," Roeders conceded after recalling a childhood meeting with Kermit Love, the late American puppeteer who created Big Bird.
Or as the clock ticks toward kickoff, it might be the team's penchant for dancing that catches your eye. Stretching, waiting in line for a drill, standing on the sideline, it really doesn't matter; if there is music playing -- and at times it feels like even that might be optional -- Marquette will be dancing.
On a roster with three sets of actual sisters, the sense of family is not just genetic.
"Enjoy the moment," Roeders said of his philosophy. "Work hard at what we do now, but down the road, what you're going to remember more than anything is not the result, not that certain game; you're going to remember what you went through and the people you had next to you. The tears and the joy that you had along the way, you're going to remember that a lot more. So in some ways, it's a lot like a family. We do so much together, and we stress that."
Lest you worry about the actual game, Marquette has plenty to offer beyond good vibes. With its unique 3-5-2 formation, the Golden Eagles pose a tactical challenge for opponents.
"It's really all based on supporting angles and getting players back behind the ball," Roeders said of a system his team used to allow just 12 goals in 22 games this season. "I think it's just, in some ways, our unique style and system which is a little bit different."
From gnomes to puppeteers to a rotation of players that goes almost 20 deep, Marquette is itself a little bit different.
"We have some odd quirks, just like every family, so to speak," Roeders said.
The fun continues Friday against host Dayton in the first round.
Which team will win it all?
Four for the College Cup: Stanford, Portland, North Carolina, Florida State.
Why Stanford will win: When in doubt, take the team with the best player. And Stanford's Kelley O'Hara has been the best player in the nation all season. The Cardinal also have the individual talent and quick-strike potential up top in O'Hara, Christen Press and Lindsay Taylor to score goals even when they're being outplayed. But because of the overall talent, the team usually dictates the run of play.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.