How time flies when we are having fun. It started with 64 teams two weeks ago and after 56 matches, the 2013 NCAA Tournament has been whittled down to just eight teams. And we have seen it all so far: classic 1-nil nail biters, 4-nil (and one 9-nil) shellackings, overtime winners and seven matches decided by penalty kicks. Through all that only eight teams, including all four Number One seeds, have won three straight matches and see themselves only 90 minutes away from Cary and the College Cup. Lets take a look how we got here and what to expect on Friday and Saturday.
A Look Back Through Rounds 1-3
What we knew would happen: The ACC has been dominant in this tournament. Out of the eight ACC representatives, all eight teams reached the Sweet 16 and the conference has a combined record of 22-2. With six of the eight teams in the Elite Eight coming from the ACC, we know at least one match in Cary next week will be an all-ACC encounter. It was said throughout the regular season that ACC was the premier women’s soccer college conference in the NCAA and the performance they have put out in the first three rounds have backed that claim.
What we didn’t see coming: How many non-seeded teams would make the Sweet 16. Eight teams that were not seeded to start the tournament made it to the Sweet 16, something that not a lot of people would have predicted. And for four of those teams: Colorado, Arkansas, Illinois and St. John’s, they played all their matches on the road to get to that point. It was a common theme during the 2013 season to expect the unexpected and the tournament has provided it’s share of surprise. Who would have thought back in early October that one of the Sweet 16 matches would have featured (an un-seeded) Duke and Arkansas? But the beautiful thing about a single-elimination knockout tournament is anything can happen. And it has which leads to part two of this segment…
What we ALSO didn’t see coming: The amount of seeded teams losing so early in the competition. In the first round, three seeded teams were eliminated. The biggest shock was seeing Marquette lose to Western Michigan at home. Marquette, who were undefeated at home this season was poised to make a run at an Elite Eight berth with a fairly manageable draw. But with the MAC Champions getting a late goal in a 1-0 victory, that turned a lot of heads. Also, Denver most likely won’t be seeded again for awhile after losing at home to Colorado in the first round. While an 18-1-1 record up to that point was impressive, it was against Summit League competition, a far lower standard in level of play than in years past for the Pioneers. Then five more seeded teams bowed out in the second round. That number isn’t as surprising but the teams that lost were shocking. Florida and Nebraska were both number two seeds in their quarter and similar to Marquette, they were primed to have a major tournament run. But as said above, in a single elimination format like the NCAA Tournament, underdogs triumphing means more often than not that top teams go home.
Something we expected to happen but were afraid to admit it: The former powers of the Big East (and spillover into The American Athletic Conference) and the WCC aren’t that powerful anymore. The Big East and AAC combined for a 2-7 record in this tournament, with only the Big East’s Georgetown and St. John’s picking up victories before getting dispatched in the second round. The AAC went 0-3 in it’s debut venture into the NCAA Tournament and now with Rutgers and Louisville departing for the Big 10 and the ACC respectively, the conference profile will drop even further. As for the WCC, with Pepperdine’s moment in the limelight fading for the time being, it’s just BYU, Portland and Santa Clara running the show. After they all tied for the regular season title, neither team really capitalized on their strong seasons in the tournament. Only Santa Clara made it to the Sweet 16 and while they took Virginia Tech to the limit, a poor penalty kick session would seal their fate. And with a core group of talented seniors departing for both Santa Clara and Portland, it is just Sophia Huerta to carry against BYU for next year. Even then, BYU isn’t anywhere near as strong as they werea year ago. It will be curious to see what is to come of the play in 2014 in the WCC.
A Look to This Weekend
Now moving onto the Elite Eight matches on Friday and Saturday, there is still a possibility that all four teams that played in the ACC Tournament semifinals a few weeks ago can meet again in Cary for the College Cup semifinals. But with only two teams having the chance to crash the ACC Party, who has the better chance of doing it? Both UCLA and Michigan have been very good in their first three matches. Both teams have scored eight goals in their matches and have conceded none. Michigan’s Nkem Ezurike has been on target as she is near the tops of the tournament scoring leaders with three goals. And with three shutouts in the tournament, plus shutouts in six of the last seven matches, goalkeeper Taylor Bucklin and the Michigan defense have been in lock down form. But this will be the toughest match of the season by far for Michigan as they play Virginia on the road. The Cavaliers have dominated every match they’ve played in the tournament so far, both on the scoreboard and in possession, and don’t look to be stopping anytime soon.
But the team that many believe can crack the ACC code will be UCLA. The Bruins are another stout defensive team as they have conceded just two goals in their last ten matches. UCLA also shares the wealth of scoring, with three players scoring multiple goals in their tournament matches. The Tar Heels picked up a 1-0 victory over UCLA in a regular season match back on September 6th, a match that the Tar Heels out shoot the Bruins 23-6 and Crystal Dunn hit the back of the net. But two months later both teams have grown into their identities and could be even more of a tighter encounter this Saturday.
In the two ACC vs. ACC Elite Eight contests, a defensive struggle will be the theme in the match between Virginia Tech and Duke. While Boston College travels to Florida State in what could be another free flowing scoring affair. The Hokies have scored just four goals but have only conceded one in their three NCAA matches. With Hokies net minder Dayle Colpitts continuing to impress in every match this season and having the home field advantage on Friday, the hosts should come through in a low scoring affair. At the same time, Duke have fed off the high pressure environment that they have played through so far, winning two of their three matches in penalties. The longer this match goes without a goal, it could play into a comfort zone for the Blue Devils.
The first Elite Eight match will be on Friday afternoon down in Tallahassee as Boston College will want to turn around the 4-3 loss they dropped at Florida State back in the regular season. BC has tightened up the screws defensively as they have surrendered just two goals in three matches. While on the attacking front, sophomores Mckenzie Meehan and Lauren Bernard each have three goals and all this tournament experience will benefit this young Eagles side for the future. The Seminoles have taken advantage of their “soft” draw to this stage and have hit the back of the net 12 times, the most of any team in the tournament. Dagny Brynjarsdottir leads all the strikers left in the competition with four goals and Kelsey Wys has only conceded two goals in ACC and NCAA tournament play combined (six matches). While BC might try for the early attacking play that nearly worked in their favor on that fateful 4-3 loss on October 3rd, Florida State have hit their stride and will be the toughest Number 1 seed to bring down of the four remaining.
Let us know what you think of the Elite Eight stage and will any of the Number One seeds go home?
Game Schedule (all times listed are in ET):
Friday November 29
Boston College vs. Florida State – 3pm
Duke vs. Virginia Tech – 4pm
Michigan vs. Virginia – 7pm
Saturday November 30
UCLA vs. North Carolina – 5pm