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Separating the wheat from the chaff

The brackets for the NCAA tournament are finally out, and now the teams brace for the unforgiving playoff format that separates the wheat from the chaff.

There were no surprises for the upper level of the seeds, as the four top overall teams, Penn, Portland, UNC and UCLA, were each ranked number one for their region.

A quick look at the form of the four teams at the end of the regular season might forecast the fate of the team in their quest for the national championship.

Out west, Cal (14-3-2) and Stanford (10-6-3) and even Arizona State did test UCLA (17-1-2) in its final games. The Cal Bears actually outshot the Bruins, but couldn't get anything past UCLA's goalkeep, Valerie Henderson. The final scoreline of 2-0 didn't really show how close the game was, as UCLA was sweating out a defensive effort until Danesha Adams struck for a very late goal. She did the same against Arizona State to secure a 2-1 win in the final minute of regulation. Stanford, meanwhile, took UCLA for the full measure of time, playing out both overtime periods for a nil-draw.

I'd give the Bruins this season's clutch award for their late-game heroics and ability to come back from behind. Coach Jill Ellis has the team's fighting spirit in fine form.

Consensus number one Penn State (19-0-1) finished the year undefeated, but that record got a serious threat from the most unlikely of sources, a team that won't even make the NCAA's. Ali Krieger was the hero for Lions, as they kept their winning streak intact with an overtime victory against Minnesota, with her header the only goal of the game. This match will probably be studied by all the teams that draw Penn in their bracket, as the Gophers were actually able to contain scoring sensation Tiffany Weimer, who ended her streak of consecutive games with a goal at 17. If unranked Minnesota had pulled off the win, it would have been the upset of the year.

It seemed to be a sign of things to come, as the Lions then tied Michigan (7-8-4), (another team that won't compete for the College Cup) in their conference tourney, 3-3 and lost on the penalty kick advance. It brings up some question about whether Penn has peaked too early, and is perhaps vulnerable in the tournament. It's difficult to look weak with their record, but opposing teams have to grab whatever hope they can.

Portland (18-0-1), meanwhile, remains the strong and steady team of the top four. Without a lot of fuss and relying on solid teamwork, this squad got results.

However, they don't make classics the way they used to, I guess. Portland handled Santa Clara (14-4-2) quite easily in their rivalry match, with a 3-1 win.

Portland's Christine Sinclair didn't claiming the goals scored in consecutive games record as I predicted. However, she's a true leader who puts the team above her own individual accomplishments. Four different Pilots scored in the match against San Diego that broke her streak, but Sinclair wasn't one of them. She set up teammates; she drew defensive attention with her runs and did everything but score. The senior now shares the record with Weimer at 17.

With her unselfish play, the Canadian international kept her focus on the team effort. I would expect that to pay dividends at the NCAA's.

North Carolina (20-1-0) has been on a vengeful streak since the one loss to Duke (13-5-1). The Tar Heels wrapping up their season by winning the ACC tournament against Virginia in emphatic 4-1 fashion. The Tarheels should have little problem giving coach Anson Dorrance win number 600 in the first round of the NCAA's. Kacey White has really stepped up for this squad. The senior won MVP honors at the ACC tourney and should continue her fine form to the College Cup.

If there's a region of death, though, North Carolina is in it. Dangerous teams lurk from the second round on, where UNC could possibly face Clemson(9-8-2). North Carolina is stocked with more than enough talent to win the tourney. However, this year's squad may have too much of an embarrassment of riches - a situation where each player is expecting someone else on the team to save the day. I had a feeling that the Tar Heels wouldn't make it through the regular season without a loss - now I'm calling them to not make it to the semifinals.

Part of that is due to another team in the North Carolina bracket. When they're good, they're very, very good - the UN delegation that is Florida State(17-3-0). Florida State has arguably the best offense in the nation. When Sel Kurlaly, Viola Odebrecht, India Trotter and Mami Yamaguchi get rolling, other teams aren't sure where the goals will come from. Skipper Mark Krikorian has a season to be proud of, as the squad posted a best-ever 16-2-0 record. The team was left just outside of the top four seeds, yet that shouldn't matter as long as they maintain their current momentum.

Another number two seed might not be so lucky. Santa Clara was actually fortunate to be granted that high of a ranking. They've been inconsistent all season long. That doesn't bode well for the Bronco's chances in the College Cup, especially since they face Stanford (10-6-3) in the second round. Stanford's already defeated the Broncos once this year.

Virgina(15-5-1), meanwhile, is a second seed that should logically get through. Every tournament has some elements that defy logic, though. I'm eyeing USC (13-6-3) to pull an upset on that part of the bracket with Amy Rodriguez and Rosa Ann Tantillo leading the way.

The defending champs, Notre Dame(19-2-0), also claimed a number two seed. Katie Thorlakson seems to have righted the ship in time to help her teammates in the chase for another crown, even if the regular season fell below expectations.

Cal State Fullerton (17-3-0), in contrast, is enjoying a banner year that includes a highest-ever seeding at the tournament. The team piped another surprising team, Marquette (17-3-1), for a third seed. Both teams are riding high on better-than-expected seasons and at least one could be the Cinderella story of the UCLA bracket.

Other California teams, namely Cal and Pepperdine (13-3-3), also earned seedings of three and four, respectively. Pepperdine especially enters the tournament on a roll, fresh off a 1-0 defeat of Santa Clara. The Waves have one of the most important ingredients for a postseason run - a goalkeeper that's on fire. Anna Picarelli had twelve saves, some of them incredible, to earn the shutout.

Duke (13-5-1) lost a little steam after the upset win over North Carolina, but still managed a number three seed in the Portland bracket, while BYU (15-2-3) nailed down the final seed. I could see the teams in this bracket continuing as ranked. They're just very solid teams, and there seems to be less of a wild-card element in this grouping.

Even though Texas A&M (16-3-2)has the lowest seed in the Penn bracket, the team is confident after a conference championship win, while number three seed Connecticut (15-4-2) stumbled in its final game against Notre Dame, losing 5-0. That's just plain demoralizing, and bound to affect the team in the opening rounds.

This year's slate of 64 teams included eleven teams in the Big Dance for the first time. It's a testament to how the game has spread around the country and beyond the traditional programs. In keeping with that spirit, I believe the NCAA tournament will end with a first time winner. I'm sticking with my preseason pick to win it all, the UCLA Bruins.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com