Commentary

Power programs, new teams in tourney

Originally Published: November 8, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The first week of November was a rough one for incumbents on the soccer field, too. In the span of a few hours last Friday, top-seeded North Carolina lost to Wake Forest in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, and the United States women's national team lost to Mexico for the first time ever. The former was North Carolina's first loss since the event's inception in 1988; the latter put the United States in jeopardy of missing the World Cup for the first time in history.

As omens go, it wasn't exactly an evening that made you want to run out and build a temple to the status quo. Which brings us to the NCAA tournament, where after four consecutive seasons with some combination of Florida State, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Stanford, USC and UCLA in the College Cup, we're guaranteed some new faces or old friends we haven't seen for years in Cary, N.C.

What else can we expect?

Who is the team to beat in the NCAA tournament?

The loss to Wake Forest notwithstanding, North Carolina is the two-time defending national champion, the reigning regular-season champion in a conference that produced five of the top eight seeds in the upcoming NCAA tournament and a No. 1 seed that won't have to travel more than a short bus ride from campus at any point in the postseason.

But the comforts of home aside, if the Tar Heels or any other team want to claim the championship trophy in Cary, N.C., this December, they have to go through Stanford.

One year after falling short in the final against North Carolina, the Cardinal enter the tournament as the lone unbeaten team. That distinction comes despite coach Paul Ratcliffe's best efforts to hang a loss on his team. Stanford opened the season with four consecutive games on the road against eventual NCAA tournament teams Boston College, Boston University, North Carolina and Duke (earning draws at Boston College and North Carolina, it's only dropped points of the season). Rather than take it easy, it then returned home to face, among others, Georgetown, Portland and Santa Clara before even getting to Pac-10 play.

Losing Kelley O'Hara, last season's Hermann Trophy winner, to graduation left a hole to fill, but the Cardinal are only slightly less prolific on offense this season, down from 3.08 goals per game last season to a meager 2.95 goals per game through 20 games. Much of the credit for the scoreboard continuity goes to Christen Press, the senior forward who should make it two Hermann winners in a row for Stanford.

"She has phenomenal skill, a great shot, fantastic placement ability -- she can scores with half a yard," Ratcliffe said earlier this season. "And she's a competitive kid; she loves to score. She's one of the best finishers I've seen in the women's game and one of the most skillful."

But it's on defense, where the Cardinal didn't have Hermann Trophy candidates waiting to step in for the two starters they lost, that the Pac-10 champions have hit their stride. In August, Ratcliffe moved forward Courtney Verloo to the middle of the back line alongside Alina Garciamendez. Then he turned the goalkeeping reins over to freshman Emily Oliver in an overtime win against Georgia in September and inserted redshirt freshman Annie Case into the back line soon thereafter. The result is Stanford has allowed just five goals since Labor Day, including just two in conference play.

Which No. 1 seed has the toughest road to the College Cup?

The perk of earning one of four No. 1 seeds is never having to leave home during the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament, but that still doesn't guarantee safe passage. And fresh off arguably the most successful regular season in program history, Maryland is going to have earn its way south.

The good news for the Terrapins is they don't get thrown in the deep end immediately. First-round opponent High Point won the Big South tournament as the No. 5 seed and is the only team in the NCAA field with a losing record. And while Georgetown (if it gets past a Siena team that beat Connecticut and Providence out of the Big East earlier this season) is a difficult potential second-round foe, especially so close to home, the Hoyas aren't any more daunting of an opponent than North Carolina, Stanford or Portland are likely to face.

But advance to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row and the fun begins. Potential Sweet 16 opponent Texas A&M was ranked just one spot behind Maryland in the last official RPI released by the NCAA (prior to conference tournaments). The Aggies have advanced to the Elite Eight in four of the last nine seasons and are familiar with playing on the road in the later stages of the postseason. Survive that and the chalk suggests Virginia would come calling in the quarterfinals. The Cavaliers were actually ranked ahead of the Terrapins in that final RPI and outshot their conference rival 17-9 in a 3-2 Maryland win in late September.

Then again, perhaps the toughest road is where Maryland wants to travel. People have doubted the Terrapins all season, looking back on the four-year postseason drought that only ended last season. And yet going back to that last RPI for a moment, only one team in the field of 64 owns four wins against teams in the RPI top 10. It's not Stanford, Portland or North Carolina. It's Maryland, led by the offensive firepower of juniors Jasmyne Spencer and Ashley Grove and a back line that will run itself into the ground before it concedes a goal.

What is the best the opening two rounds has to offer?

Best site: Charlottesville, Va.
Patriot League champion Lehigh will have its hands full with host Virginia in the first round, but the rest of the schedule looks compelling. South Carolina gave Florida a good fight in both games between the SEC's top two programs and was itself in the running for a seed for much of the season. The Gamecocks have a game-changing offensive player in Kayla Grimsley and a veteran outstanding keeper in Mollie Patton, making them strongest in the two areas that can most easily swing a postseason game. But to even get a shot at Virginia, South Carolina first has to get by UNC-Greensboro, which lost just once during the regular season, beat Wake Forest and tied USC. The Cavaliers are as strong a College Cup contender as any team not on the top seed line, so it's saying something that three teams could win here without it being a historic upset.

Best potential second-round game: Central Florida vs. UCLA
You aren't going to find many No. 1 seeds playing more compelling second-round games than Stanford, which potentially faces against Bay Area rival Santa Clara, but a potential meeting in Los Angeles between fourth-seeded Central Florida and unseeded UCLA is even more tempting. The Bruins caught a break in staying at home for the first two rounds (although facing BYU in the first round, there's no guarantee they'll be around for two rounds). Central Florida was a surprise seed after losing the Conference USA final to Memphis and dropping both signature games of the regular season against Florida and Florida State. The Bruins dropped seven games in the regular season and only scored 32 goals, but until someone actually puts them out of the tournament, the name is going to stand out on the black and white of the bracket.

Most intriguing first-round game: Florida State vs. Middle Tennessee State
This one will take place without Florida State coach Mark Krikorian, who earned more attention for not trying to win one game than he did winning 105 games in his first six seasons in Tallahassee. Krikorian was suspended for one game by the ACC for not bringing a complete team to the conference tournament, where his team lost in the quarterfinals.

Krikorian's team has dealt with injuries all season, and has played the entire schedule without its two leading scorers from last season, Tiffany McCarty and Jessica Price. The ACC also scheduled the Seminoles to close the regular season with a two-leg road trip to Maryland and Boston College, meaning if they were to go all out and win the ACC tournament, they would play five games in 11 days, all away from home on trips long enough to require air travel. Instead, after earning its seed through its play on the field in the regular season, Florida State elected to sacrifice the conference tournament and its possible ramifications on NCAA seeding to be healthy and rested for the more meaningful postseason event.

There was a self-serving act of arrogance involved in this saga, but Krikorian wasn't the guilty party. And for the ACC's insistence that its unnecessary tournament trump what a coach feels is in the best interests of his student-athletes, the Seminoles will play without their coach.

Which teams not in the field were snubbed?

This topic actually shares a theme with the mess in the ACC. And it's not the NCAA selection committee that deserves criticism for this season's most noticeable omissions. It's conferences that insist on staging poorly-attended conference tournaments to determine automatic NCAA qualification, often at the expense of teams that excel over the course of a season.

Toledo and Denver won't be a part of the NCAA tournament, despite going a combined 21-1-0 in the MAC and Sun Belt, respectively. That's because Toledo lost in the semifinals of the MAC tournament against Western Michigan (which it beat during the regular season) and Denver lost in the Sun Belt final against Middle Tennessee (which it beat during the regular season).

There wasn't much the selection committee could do for either team, especially after UC Irvine and Hofstra, at-large locks based on their bodies of work in leagues with no other at-large hopefuls, lost conference tournament finals on Sunday. Those losses ate up two more potential bids for bubble teams, and neither Toledo nor Denver had the depth of résumé to get past teams like Penn State, Virginia Tech or other bubble teams with two or three times as many games against quality RPI teams.

This isn't to take anything away from Central Michigan or Middle Tennessee, which claimed automatic bids out of those two conferences (Central Michigan, in particular, lost to Toledo but otherwise enjoyed a brilliant campaign at 10-1-0 in the MAC). Players on both of those teams will remember the past weekend's championship celebration and the coming weekend's NCAA appearance for years to come. But there are only so many of those moments to go around, and in equating three or four days of a conference tournament with the full scope of the regular season, leagues like the MAC and Sun Belt are doing a disservice to their members.

Who are four players who could swing the tournament?

Keeper: Bianca Henninger, Santa Clara
There isn't a position on the field with more disparity of talent in the women's college game than goalkeeper. And the few teams that have great ones have an enormous advantage. There are plenty of candidates, including Virginia's Chantel Joens and Boston College's Jillian Mastroianni, but Henninger may be the best of them all. She would need to be against Stanford.

Defender: Kathryn Williamson, Florida
The SEC defender of the year is every bit as good as that label suggests, and she's the backbone of a Gators team that is as balanced across the field as any in the last few seasons. Florida has a lot of tremendous athleticism on offense, but Williamson, Ashlee Elliott and the back line also give it the toughness to play into December.

Midfield: Kristie Mewis, Boston College
There are people who follow Boston College who want her to shoot the ball any time she touches it inside of 35 yards, and they may have a point. She has a lethal long-range shot, but she also has tremendous creativity on the ball and an athletic mean streak to go get it.

Forward: Danielle Foxhoven, Portland
Portland finally has the No. 1 seed it deserved the last few seasons, but the Pilots don't have their usual quantity of goals. A prolific scorer in her first two seasons who hasn't been able to find the net much this season, Foxhoven nevertheless has tremendous poise and finishing instincts inside the 18-yard box. If she gets going, Portland won't stop.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.