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Nov 25, 2007

College parity makes for tournament upsets

Ask any college coach and he'll go on and on about the level of parity that exists in NCAA men's soccer -- that the sport is so competitive that on any given day the No. 1 team could lose to the No. 101 team. While that might be a bit of hyperbole, when it comes to the difference between the No. 1 and the No. 48 teams, the postseason has shown us that just about anything is possible.

After all, last year's No. 1 seed (Southern Methodist) fell in the second round to an unranked team that almost no one had on their radar (Santa Barbara).

There weren't any huge surprises following last Monday's bracket announcement, but that's all changed when tournament play commenced.

With one round in the books, here's a look at the bracket busters so far.

University of Illinois-Chicago over No. 12 Saint Louis on penalty kicks (6-5)

The Billiken is supposed to be a symbol of good luck, but it didn't do Saint Louis much good this postseason. The Billikens came in to the tournament the highest-ranked team not to receive a bye but were still the favorite to advance out of this match. For their part, the Flames posted a commendable 11-5-5 regular-season record, winning the Horizon League tournament to earn their NCAA Tournament berth.

After scoreless regulation and overtime, it came down to penalty kicks -- eight rounds of them -- for this match to be decided.

UIC took an early 3-1 advantage, but the Billikens fought their way back in and tied it up at 3-3. Finally, Flames goalkeeper Jovan Bubonja saved a kick by Brandon Gasparovic and UIC forward Matt Spiess hit the game-winner.

The Flames will be looking for upset No. 2 as they head to the suburbs to face No. 9 seed Northwestern in the second round.

Central Connecticut State 3, No. 15 Harvard 2

Harvard also earned the dubious honor of being among the top teams that fell early. The Crimson cracked the top 10 this season, but were shocked by Central Connecticut State on Saturday.

The credit here goes solely to CCSU. The Blue Devils never trailed -- Connor Smith opened up the scoring in the 22nd minute. Even more impressive was the composure Central Connecticut State showed; Harvard twice battled back from a deficit to tie the game. Despite their best efforts, coming back a third time proved too much for the Crimson and CCSU advanced in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in its history.

UCLA 1, No. 21 New Mexico 0

If things would have gone the other way, this matchup could still have been considered an upset.

The Lobos entered the game 12-4-2 with a top 25 ranking, while UCLA limped through the season, compiling an 8-8-3 record.

Nonetheless, the Bruins were the 2006 runners-up and still have a number of key pieces from that squad. Needless to say, an exit this early by the Bruins would have been a surprise -- even given the fact that UCLA has not lived up to preseason expectations.

The Bruins lacked consistency during the regular season, but if the team learned anything in last year's College Cup final against Santa Barbara, it learned that anything can happen in the postseason. On Saturday night, UCLA found a way to win.

This game, like so many other first-round matches, came down to the final minutes. Sophomore Kyle Nakazawa scored the game-winner, off a free kick, with just 1:39 left to play.

Oakland 2, No. 24 Michigan State 1

Michigan State held its own in a tough Big Ten conference this season, but the Spartans proved unable to hold off Oakland on Saturday afternoon.

The Rochester, Mich.-based Golden Grizzlies -- let's be honest, not everyone knows where Oakland University is located -- scored the only goal of the first half, then jumped out to a 2-0 lead after a goal by sophomore forward Stefan St. Louis.

Michigan State ended its scoring drought with 10 minutes left to play, but it would not be enough to save the Spartans' season.

Louisville 1, Duke 0

Of all the games mentioned, this outcome was probably the least surprising, but it serves as reminder of just how much can change over the course of the season.

In August, few expected a Duke team one year removed from the Final Four, would even play a first round (instead of getting a bye), let alone fall in it.

However, the Blue Devils struggled throughout 2007. After a 1-0 loss to Louisville on Friday, those struggles -- as well as Duke's season -- are over.

It was a disappointing finish for the Blue Devils, who came in as a preseason favorite. With 13 seniors and coach John Rennie all taking part in their final games, it seemed like the team would have all the intangibles necessary to advance deep into the postseason. Still, Duke was shaky all season and faced a battle-tested Louisville team. The Cardinals jumped ahead in the first half and never looked back. Louisville appears to be hitting its stride at just the right time, advancing to the Big East tourney semifinals and then earning its first-ever NCAA appearance last week.

Now, with the top-seeded teams thrown into the mix, is when the real fun begins. Will any of the aforementioned squads find their way to the College Cup? That's the true test of parity.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.