by TRAVIS CLARK
The first round of the NCAA Tournament kicks off today, and with it, the last chance for some players before leaving college and carving out a professional career — either in at home or abroad. For others, it's a chance at making a lasting impression on their collegiate coach, upsetting the high seed and going on a run towards that championship trophy.
Much of the talk this year has been about the ACC, and how dominant a conference it is. Now is the time to put that into practice, with seven schools representing in the tournament, including four of the top seeds. It won't, however, be an all-ACC semifinal thanks to the tournament selectors, who have rightly favored No. 1 seeded Akron in that respect.
So who emerges from the 48 teams with the trophy in hand? Smart money takes a school from the ACC, though maybe those schools will be exhausted after beating up on each other during the fall. Akron is No. 1 in just about every poll, and out to prove that they are no fluke. There are plenty of story lines and players to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.
Five unseeded teams to look out for
Maryland – The defending champs were knocked out in the first round of the ACC tournament, and as a result, have to appear in a first round game — hardly the norm for Sacho Cirovski and the Terrapins. Howver, they have a number of players who were there last season when the school won it all, and will no doubt be in the mood for a second consecutive title. Zac MacMath will need to be huge in goal, and they'll need scoring influence of Casey Townsend to go anywhere.
UConn – One of the perennial powerhouses of recent times, the Huskies have a first-round date with Monmouth as play gets underway Thursday. Ray Reid has led UConn to their 12th straight tournament appearance, and will know what he needs from his players to put together a successful run over the next few weeks. Freshman midfielder Carlos Alvarez will play a big role for the Huskies, but can he handle the pressure?
UCSB – A 4-1 thrashing ended the Gauchos' hopes of a conference tournament title, and Wofford will likely feel their wrath after that loss to UC Irvine. The Gauchos hopes lie in players from around the world — Canada, Ghana, Sweden to name a few — all pulling together and forgetting the WCC tournament loss. It's not the hardest path to the third round either, so keep an eye on the Gauchos. Danny Barrera has started and played in every game this season will have to elevate himself to another level if UCSB is to taste tournament success.
Dartmouth – It's quite likely that the Big Green are one-and-done in the first round. After all, they face a trip to nearby Boston College, who have quite the resume, having defeated a couple of ACC powerhouses in recent weeks. But a first round upset is possible, given the likelihood of the Eagles being a touch overconfident. If Dartmouth can revert to early season form, look for them to make something happen. Co-captain and senior Craig Henderson, from New Zealand, will look to lead the way as Dartmouth eyes some upsets.
Louisville – The No. 6 team in the country — according to the NSCAA poll — isn't worthy of a top 16 spot in the tournament. As a result, look for the Cardinals to be sporting a massive chip on their shoulder, out to prove that the Big East isn't quite as bad as some people think. Sophomore Colin Rolfe (no relation to Chris) must provide the scoring touch seen so often in the regular season, as he led the squad with 10 goals this year. And Indiana is no easy first-round opponent, so there is plenty of work to be done.
Players to Watch
Darlington Nagbe (Akron) – Most of the publicity in Akron goes to nation's leading scorer Teal Bunbury. However, his counterpart Darlington Nagbe will have just as much of a say in Akron's success as Bunbury will. After all, opposing defenses will key in on Bunbury, create the need for Nagbe to step up, just like he did by scoring the winning goal in the MAC Tournament semifinal.
Tony Tchani (UVA) – For all the talk of Virginia's defense at the time, one of their most creative assets is the attacking midfielder Tony Tchani. A tall, lanky player, Tchani is very comfortable with the ball at his feet and quite the asset in attack. Virginia will need to score at a higher rate if they hope to make it through to the finals, something Tchani can either do himself, or set up others.
Andre Akpan (Harvard) – Already the Crimson's leading scorer of all time, Akpan closes out his collegiate career with a chance to put the Ivy League champs on his back and see how far he can carry them. Not only does Akpan have a shot at the Hermann trophy, but it is also likely that pro scouts from near and afar will be keeping an eye on his progress as well.
Brian Perk (UCLA) – He's a name that most US fans will recognize, as Perk was the starting goalie for the U-20s in Egypt. The senior shot-stopper will be looking to anchor a run for his school in his last college season. Whether Perk jumps to MLS or elsewhere remains to be seen — at this point he'll be interested in string clean sheets together.
Corben Bone (Wake Forest) – One of the most unique names in college soccer will have to be at his influential best if the Deamon Deacons hope for their second championship in three years. Wake can defend with a determination like few other schools, so it'll be up to Bone and his ability to unlock the opposition to help navigate through to the final.
1. Can the Big East prove the detractors wrong? Since the RPI came out, the Big East has garnered no respect. Despite having a couple of schools in the top 10, the conference struggled to make any noise in the RPI. As a result, conference tournament winner St. John's was the only school to get a seed. Any Big East school advancing into the third round with wins over seeded schools will prove that the RPI got this one wrong.
2. Who will score on Virginia? Certainly the hottest team in the country outside of Ohio, the Cavaliers have a mean shutout streak going. Timely scoring and stout defense has brought them to a No. 2 seed, though perhaps that's more of a direct result of the ACC Championship. The first big test may not be until the quarterfinals either, so expect the shutout streak to last a game or two longer — maybe snapped by Harvard and Andre Akpan.
3. Will Akron run the table? The 20 consecutive wins sure have been impressive. For all the talk about how easy their schedule has been, they played a few Big Ten teams, beating Ohio State and Penn St by the same 3-0. How they fare against an ACC opponent like North Carolina remains to be seen — thought it wouldn't be surprising to see the Zips win it all.
4. Is an all-ACC final inevitable? As previously mentioned, four teams in the semifinals won't happen as a result of the seeding. Glancing at the bracket, however, it's easy to jump to that conclusions — with either Wake, Virginia or North Carolina in the finals. There's a lot of soccer to be played, and a lot of schools out there to prove that the ACC is overrated, so expect some upsets along the way.
5. Who are the dark horses? With all the talk surrounding either Akron or a team from the ACC or Big Ten, big conference domination is hard to avoid. It's a case of different resources being available and the higher profile programs attracting the best collegiate players. Loyola College has a decent big of tradition, but in order to make the second round have to beat Maryland in College Park just to accomplish that. No. 5 Monmouth's 18-1-1 record is up there with the best, but a match-up against UConn awaits. Green Bay has scored goals at a prolific rate, netting 46 goals on the year, good for second best in the nation. Any of those three could provide a first round shock, though hard pressed to put together a sustained run.
Akron – Naturally, the nation's lone undefeated team had to be here. And from reports, the Zips are the real deal. Attacking talents include Bunbury and Nagbe, but the defense has been outstanding as well. Akron has scored a nation-high 53 goals, and has conceded just seven in 20 games. Those are two statistics that cannot be ignored. Now will be the time to see what the Zips are really made of.
Virginia – Defending is the Cavaliers' strength, but goals will be important unless they want to be exahusted after every match. UVA proved that they can put together an impressive run of performances to win a conference tournament, and while the task here is even larger, they should get enough goals out of Tchani, Will Bates and Brian Ownby to succeed. Goalie Diego Restrepo has allowed just seven goals on the year, posting an average of 0.35 per game.
North Carolina - Even though the Tar Heels couldn't get past in-state foes NC State on penalties. They've outscored opponents 38-11 and have the right combination of goal-scoring potential, through Billy Schuler and Michael Farfan, and defensive prowess, behind goalie Brooks Haggerty and defensive leader Zach Loyd. Whether they sustain a run and can overcome a potential meeting with Akron will determine if UNC can win it all.
Wake Forest – Champions back in 2007, Wake failed to score a victory in this year's ACC tournament. With one of the most talented rosters in the country, anything short of at least the semifinals is a disappointment. Between Bone, Ike Opara, Kyle Adams, and Zach Schilawski, there's plenty to like about Wake in this tournament. The biggest test that may await them is a rematch against UVA, the side that knocked the Deacons out of the ACC tournament.
UCLA – Just like in other college sports, the teams out west get less respect. And UCLA falls into that category, having won their second consecutive Pac-10 regular season title. Giving the Bruins an even bigger advantage is that they didn't have to play in a conference tournament. Still, it won't be easy, and Kyle Nakazawa will have to score early and often for the Bruins to walk away champions.
Who do you think will win the NCAA tournament? Who is going to get through the first round games today? Anyone left off the list that deserves to be on?
Share your thoughts below.