- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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After two rounds that saw plenty of impressive performances and surprising results, here's a quick look at what we can expect from the Sweet 16:
1. Which unseeded team has the best chance to make the quarterfinals?
By the end of the weekend, two of the following quartet of teams will be just 90 minutes and one win from a spot in the College Cup: Georgetown, Minnesota, UC Irvine and Washington.
Major obstacles will remain for whichever two unseeded teams find themselves in that situation, but for a tournament that hasn't seen a true outsider run to the semifinals since Princeton advanced to that stage in 2004, it's all a rather remarkable state of affairs.
Minnesota and UC Irvine gained distinct advantages when each was selected to host its respective game (Minnesota against Georgetown and UC Irvine against Washington), a process that is murky at best when two unseeded teams meet and probably only slightly less arbitrary than settling home-field advantage with the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
The Gophers were 7-2-1 at home this season, although if you trust the forecast, weather won't be quite as much of a factor this Saturday as it was when snow banks surrounded the field in a second-round upset of No. 4 Texas A&M. For its part, Georgetown went 1-3-0 on the road in the regular season against teams that eventually made the NCAA tournament and scored just one goal in those games, a 1-0 win at James Madison (in addition to losses at Santa Clara, Stanford and West Virginia). Of course, the Hoyas are only here because they eliminated Maryland in a penalty shootout on the Terrapins' home field.
At 19-2-2 on the season, UC Irvine had a lot of success wherever it played, although it's worth noting that both the losses came at home, one in August against Seattle University and the other in the Big West tournament final against Long Beach State. Star Tanya Taylor was pretty much an equal-opportunity producer, collecting five of her 10 goals and seven of her 12 assists in 13 home games (compared with five goals and five assists in 11 road games). Washington has the most pronounced home-road splits of the entire quartet. The Huskies went 5-1-1 at home this season and just 5-6-1 on the road (it didn't help that this was their year to travel to both of the Bay Area schools and the Los Angeles schools, never an easy task in the Pac-10).
UC Irvine had its own case for a seed when the bracket came out, and after showing how dangerous it can be at home in wins against Arizona State and Wake Forest this past weekend (on top of home wins against San Diego and Oregon State in the regular season), the Anteaters seem like the most likely unseeded team to keep rolling right through Thanksgiving.
2. Which favorite has the toughest task on its hands?
Seeded vs. unseeded: In addition to the four unseeded teams squaring off against each other, two more unseeded teams will take the field looking to eliminate seeds for the second weekend in a row. Fresh off eliminating No. 4 Central Florida, UCLA visits No. 1 Stanford, and Duke looks to follow its upset of No. 2 Florida with a win against No. 3 Oklahoma State. The Pac-10 rivalry can't be ignored -- the Bruins had owned the Cardinal recently until a reversal of fortune the past couple of seasons and are entirely familiar with the trip to Palo Alto -- but the Blue Devils appear the more likely of the two to come out with an unlikely win.
The extraordinarily young Blue Devils -- they started just one junior and one senior in the second round against Florida -- took their lumps in the ACC regular season but showed an ability to play at a high level on more than one occasion (drawing Florida and Maryland and beating Boston College in the regular season). There's no reason to think freshmen Mollie Pathman and Laura Weinberg will be awed by the stage after an ACC season.
Seeded vs. seeded: There are usually plenty of options in this group, but with all the upsets in the first two rounds, only four third-round games pit seeds against each other. And of the four favored seeds in those games, No. 2 Boston College probably has its hands the fullest when No. 3 West Virginia comes to town Friday night. The two former Big East rivals haven't played since Boston College left the conference, but the coaches know each other well.
Boston College survived its derby match in the first round against Boston University, then took care of Hofstra in the second round in a game that was closer than a 3-1 final score suggests. The Mountaineers are on as much of a roll as any team in the field, winners of 14 games in a row, including a combined five consecutive postseason games in the Big East and NCAA tournaments. With the exception of Boston College's Kristie Mewis, West Virginia's top scorers have been in better form in recent weeks than the Eagles' top scorers.
3. What is the single most intriguing Sweet 16 game?
It's not the only meeting of brand names, but No. 1 North Carolina against No. 4 Notre Dame is the one that looks most tempting. It's certainly the only one pitting two teams with multiple national championships. The Fighting Irish were the last team to deny the Tar Heels a national championship, eliminating them in the third round in Chapel Hill three years ago. And although some late stumbles in a Big East Conference that might be better than previously thought, considering it boasts four of the remaining 16 teams, cost the Fighting Irish in seeding, this is still a team that spent part of the season in the top five.
"We could say the bracketologists screwed up; that's one man's opinion," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said in his postgame comments after a second-round win against James Madison. "Or we could say that the game is getting better. And it is getting better; there are more competitive teams out there. Notre Dame is certainly one of them. They're a team that's usually going to be seeded top four, maybe a No. 1 seed. So for us to meet them early, it's because there's a lot of competition out there."
Only a few players who started that 2007 game remain -- Notre Dame's Lauren Fowlkes and Julie Scheidler and North Carolina's Meghan Klingenberg chief among them -- but the underdog's experience on the back line might be its best hope of survival against a Tar Heels lineup buoyed by the return of Crystal Dunn and Courtney Jones, even in a limited role for the latter. Coming off a pair of clean sheets against New Mexico and USC, Notre Dame can, depending on alignment and whim, run out a defense that includes three senior defenders, a senior keeper and an experienced hand at holding midfielder in Courtney Barg.
4. What about the other two games?
All right, so we've come this far without paying any attention to a pair of compelling games.
No. 3 Ohio State at No. 2 Virginia: The Buckeyes are making their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2004, but the Cavaliers are regular visitors to this round -- 2004 was the last year they didn't make it this far. Ohio State has scored multiple goals just twice in its past 10 games, and Virginia keeper Chantel Jones is one of the best in the field, so the Big Ten representative is going to need to play a perfect defensive game against ACC offensive player of the year Sinead Farrelly and standout forward Meghan Lenczyk. But with defenders such as Cassie Dickerson, that's not entirely out of the question.
No. 3 Marquette at No. 2 Florida State: He who laughs last gets rested players for the Sweet 16. Maryland and Wake Forest, the teams that played three games in five days in the ACC tournament after a full weekend of ACC play preceding that tournament, are gone after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Florida State plays on after essentially trading a week of rest for a one-game suspension for its coach. Florida State's defense has been its backbone all season, and the matchup against Marquette forwards Ashley Bares and Rachael Sloan -- particularly against Seminoles stalwart Toni Pressley -- will be fun to watch. Marquette has a fantastic keeper in Natalie Kulla and plenty of defensive talent, but the Golden Eagles have been curiously porous from long distance recently, allowing three goals in the Big East final against South Florida and two more in the NCAA tournament second-round win against Wisconsin.
5. What was the biggest disappointment of the first two rounds?
The Big 12 owes Oklahoma State a debt of gratitude for ensuring that league wouldn't share the honor, but the SEC again finds itself under the microscope after a disappointing tournament.
No. 2 Florida was the biggest disappointment of the three SEC teams in the field, exiting at home by losing a penalty shootout against Duke in the second round, but the Gators won't be the only ones at home. The SEC will be without representation in the third round after South Carolina's second-round loss at Virginia and Auburn's first-round loss against South Florida.
The SEC has received 26 NCAA tournament bids in the past five seasons. Only six of those teams reached the second weekend of play, including just two in the past three seasons (Florida in 2008 and South Carolina in 2009). The league's overall record in those games is 17-22-7, despite playing 22 of those games on SEC fields. There are some top-notch facilities springing up in the SEC, and the conference's track record in just about every sport suggests that a switch eventually will get flipped. But another postseason of disappointment means another round of skepticism about just where the SEC fits in the power structure of women's college soccer.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
From which unseeded teams have the best shot at the College Cup to the SEC's disappointing showing, Graham Hays answers five burning NCAA tournament questions.