By JOHN BOSCHINI
Despite the controversy surrounding Monday's selection show, 48 teams begin their quest for the College Cup tonight as the 2010 NCAA Tournament kicks off around the country.
There is little argument as to who the favorites to reach the semifinals in Santa Barbara are. Louisville, Maryland, Akron and North Carolina have been the top four teams in the country by nearly every measuring stick since the middle of October. Louisville is one of only two undefeated teams in the country but the Cardinals were less than impressive in their Big East title run.
Maryland is arguably the hottest team in the country. During a 14-game winning streak, the Terrapins have outscored their opponents 36-4 while keeper Zac MacMath has kept 13 clean sheets this season.
Minus a blip on the radar called Cleveland State, Akron has shown over the course of the season that it is poised to take home a national title. Victories over then top-five opponenets Wake Forest, Tulsa, North Carolina are coupled with other quality wins against Michigan, Creighton, Michigan State and Penn State.
The Zips lineup is loaded with professional-calibar talent. The midfield is led by Darlington Nagbe while Jamaican freshman Darren Mattocks has banged in 15 goals this season.
North Carolina had its 13-game unbeaten streak snapped under controversial circumstances in the ACC title game but the return of Michael Farfan makes the Tar Heels legitimate contenders. If UNC is going to make a run its defense will have to be up to its regular-season form which had 10 shutouts. All four of the top seeds enjoy home field advantage until the semifinals.
Behind the frontrunners are more than a few dark horses looking to stake claim to the national title. Butler were hard done by dropping the 13th seed despite breaking into the NSCAA top 10 and finishing the season undefeated. Southern Methodist has quietly been hanging around in the top seven since Oct. 12 and should not be underestimated. Both teams could face each other in the round of 16, with the winner taking on North Carolina.
Michigan rocketed into a seed on the back of its conference title and the committee's high regard for the Big 10. The Wolverine's position might be elevated but an absolutely dominating conference tournament has forced the nation to take notice and if freshman Soony Saad can keep up his form Michigan can surprise some people.
Lurking in the first round are a few teams with more than enough talent to get past some of their seeded competition. Three ACC teams, Duke, Virginia and Boston College, have fallen out of form in the past few weeks but possess a ton of talent but their inconsistency could mean a first-round upset.
Ryan Kinne and Monmouth were in the top 5 early in the season but a few disapointing losses in the soft Northeast leave relegated the Hawks to a first-round matchup with Dartmouth. It will be interesting to see how Monmouth reacts to the pressure of the NCAA tournament. Also, be on the lookout for Princeton, who are riding a 12-game winning streak after a perfect Ivy League campaign.
Players to watch
Darlington Nagbe, M/F, Akron- Regarded by many experts as the top pro prospect in college soccer, Nagbe is a versatily and speedy attacking who can go at defenses from midfield or forward.
Will Bruin, F, Indiana- While the Hoosiers have been battling inconsistancy problems all season the junior forward has anything but inconsistant. Bruin has banged in 16 goals for an Indiana squad that rose from unranked in the NSCAA rankings to the eighth seed in the NCAA tournament. A dominating figure at 6'2 and 194 pounds, Bruin doesn't have the speed or finesse of a typical striker but will be a force for any undersized defender.
Zac MacMath, GK, Maryland- The USMNT youth keeper has been nothing short of dominant this season for the ACC powerhouse. The junior has recorded 13 shutouts and was named the ACC tournament most valuable player after shutting out Virginia, which included a penalty save, and North Carolina.
Darren Mattocks, F, Akron- The Jamaican forward has made a name for himself under Caleb Porter thanks to his quickness and a finishing touch almost unheard of at the college level. With one of the nation's best midfields backing him up, expect Mattock's offensive output to continue.
Michael Farfan, M, North Carolina- One of the nation's premier playmakers, Farfan will be key to UNC's chances of winning its region and reaching the Final Four. Farfan will be looking to make up for his ACC Final nightmare (he was issued a first-half red card in UNC's loss to Maryland), while also boosting his status a projected MLS first-round draft pick.
Soony Saad, F, Michigan- The 2009 National High School Player of the Year lived up to the hype this season, scoring a nation-leading 18 goals to help the Wolverines win the Big Ten championship. Look for him to continue his stellar run of form in postseason play.
Prediction: As boring as a selection as this is, it would be a huge surprise for anyone outside of the top four to make it to Santa Barbara. Once there, the matchup between Maryland and Akron is as much a national championship game as the one being played on Dec. 12.
Akron simply has too much talent and big-game experience to be ignored and should be crowned national champions. The Zips should beat Maryland in the semifinals and North Carolina in the final to win its first