Forget the rankings, forget the records and forget the results up until now. Forty-eight teams have punched their tickets to the NCAA Division I Men's Soccer Championship, and everything goes out the window when the dance kicks off on Friday.
On second thought, we will take a look at how some of the invited got there, and recap a few surprising results in the conference tournaments. But mainly, it is about looking ahead.
The most intriguing team in the field could be St. John's, which has qualified for 15 consecutive tournaments (our apologies to Storm fans for saying this would "only" be SJU's 11th straight appearance last week). The Red Storm captured the Big East title in dominating fashion, winning four straight games (including W's over defending champ Connecticut and fourth-ranked West Virginia) without conceding a goal.
Surprisingly, the impressive postseason streak wasn't enough to get the Johnnies (13-5-2) one of 16 seeds and the first-round bye that goes with it, and that snub might just bite them in the second round.
But first, Dave Masur's men have to get past tourney newbie Monmouth (N.J.) in the friendly confines of Belson Stadium. Assuming they do, the road gets decidedly more difficult after that: Defending national champion (and No. 5 seed) Maryland awaits.
While it looks like St. John's got the short stick on this one, you can bet that Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski was none too pleased with this draw. His young Terps have done better than many expected this season, but no way does he want to face a tough, experienced opponent that's peaking right off the bat. Provided the Storm take care of Monmouth, that St. John's-Maryland match on Nov. 15 has upset written all over it.
Seven ACC teams are in (tied with the Big East for the most of any conference), and six of those clubs are seeded. Duke owns the top spot, thanks largely to its OT win over Wake Forest in the league finale. Since seeding began in 1994, an ACC side has earned the No. 1 seed eight times, quite a remarkable stat.
Ninth-seeded Clemson might have its hands full with UAB if the Blazers get past Atlantic Sun champs Gardner-Webb as expected. The Tigers came out of the gates flying this season but their form dipped once the weather began to get cold. Meanwhile, Alabama-Birmingham conjured up two of the more surprising results of the season during the past two weeks. On Oct. 25, Coach Mike Getman's team knocked off unbeaten, top-ranked SMU, then tied the Mustangs, 1-1, in the Conference-USA tournament last Wednesday.
Like Cirovski, Clemson boss Trevor Adair will be cursing his luck that his idle team will open the NCAAs with a tough, hungry and confident opponent.
Other potential upsets in the making? In the first round, keep an eye on the Fairfield-UConn tilt. Debutant Fairfield (14-5-1) was in and out of the national polls this year, while Connecticut is probably the most disappointing team in the country. True, the MAAC titlists will have to go to Storrs and win, but the Stags know the Huskies (10-6-2) are beatable this year, and you better believe that they want the bragging rights that would come with upsetting their storied state-mates. For Fairfield, this is the College Cup final right here.
West Virginia's loss to St. John's in the Big East decider might come back to haunt the Mountaineers. Following the loss, they were handed the sixth seed. Not too shabby, you say, but WVU's storybook season (15-2-3) will be on the line against either Virginia Tech or UNC Greensboro next week, and either foe is capable of pulling a shocker.
Tech is the only ACC team playing in the first round, but we'll never understand how the Hokies were handed an at-large bid over Boston College. The Eagles beat Virginia Tech during the regular season and had a superior record in conference play. But really, both teams should have been included. In fact, the ACC is so darn good, why not just invite all nine schools? It's a shame that a talent like BC hit man Charlie Davies (tied for third in the nation with 15 goals) will be sitting on his butt in Beantown for the next three weeks.
Early in the year, we were all over UCLA and its beleaguered coach Jorge Salcedo. We cut the Bruins some slack last month after the young squad showed some midseason mettle, winning five in a row despite losing several top players to injury. Since then, Salcedo's side has missed out on the Pac-10 title for the first time since 2001 (but still managed to pick up the eighth seed while league champ Cal got the 13th -- we don't know how that happened either), and enters the competition with one win in its last five outings.
UCLA will probably meet Ivy winner Harvard (which faces Binghamton this weekend) in Westwood, but a win is anything but certain. The Bruins have been horrible in NCAA play during Salcedo's tenure, and the Crimson (13-4-0) won't go down easily. If the hosts drop this one, it's goodbye Jorge for sure.
What to Watch for:
Nada, zilch, zero. That's right, none of the NCAA tournament's 32 first- and second-round games are being televised anywhere, on any network. We've sung this song before, but let us ask the question again: Why on earth would the NSCAA enter a partnership with Fox Soccer Channel and not stipulate that any tourney games be shown? As you read above, there is no shortage of mouthwatering matches to choose from. Most of the first-round games take place in prime time this Friday, the same day and time slot FSC's "College Soccer Game of the Week" occupied all season.
College soccer is enjoying a breakthrough year. Attendance is off the charts and interest is at an all-time high. If both are to continue to grow, so must the exposure, especially during the very best part of the season.
To satisfy your soccer jones, don't miss MLS Cup this Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Plenty of former college stars will be on display when the New England Revolution takes on Dynamo Houston at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.