The real fun begins in the Sweet 16
It took less than a week for the 48-team bracket to shrink to a Sweet 16. Now, the real fun finally begins.
But before we begin to dissect this weekend's eight pairings, let's look at how exactly we got here. As you've probably heard by now, the tourney's top seed is out after one game for the second year running. Twelve months after SMU bombed out to eventual champ UC Santa Barbara in its opener, ACC double winner Boston College had its season-long coming-out party broken up by heavy underdog UMass, 2-1.
The Eagles' ouster was but one of a bevy of upsets Wednesday. In other second-round games, Bradley beat 4-seed Indiana, Illinois-Chicago dropped No. 9 Northwestern, Cinderella Central Connecticut State stayed alive by shocking No. 16 Tulsa and South Florida worked overtime to knock off 14-seed Akron.
Also out of championship contention, if not technically upset, is SMU (which fell 3-0 to No. 8 Creighton) and the 2006 runner-up UCLA Bruins, who were similarly trounced, 3-1, by seventh-seeded Santa Clara.
Now, on to Round 3. The remaining squads are a nice mix of traditional tournament powers (Maryland, Connecticut, Santa Clara) and relative newbies (Virginia Tech, Bradley, UMass). Here are the matchups, game times (so you can follow these nontelevised bouts online) and, most importantly, our picks.
Bradley at No. 13 Maryland (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET)
Bradley's Braves deserve a lot of credit for knocking off Indiana (albeit on penalty kicks) to get here. They deserve a ton more for putting together this type of season after midfielder Danny Dahlquist tragically lost his life in August. Neutrals will be rooting for BU, and the Terps, who were far from convincing in squeaking past in-state rival Loyola on PKs after a scoreless tie, will need a much-improved performance to move on. Another title might be just out of reach this year, but with tourney chops and the 12th man on its side in College Park, this young Maryland team will advance to the Elite Eight. Just imagine how good the Terps would have been this season if Maurice Edu, Chris Seitz and Robbie Rogers hadn't bolted for the pros early.
Illinois-Chicago at No. 8 Creighton (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
UIC is back in the final 16 for the first time since 2000, when current U.S. national teamer Jay DeMerit was patrolling the Flames' back line. With a convincing 2-0 second-round triumph at Northwestern, John Trask's team already has gone one step further than the ballyhooed 2006 squad. Will UIC's run end in Omaha? Probably. Creighton's trouncing of SMU in midweek suggests the Bluejays have put that heartbreaking home loss to Bradley in the Missouri Vallley final firmly behind them. Jays win by two.
No. 10 Notre Dame at No. 7 Santa Clara (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET)
The way Santa Clara is playing, it looks like a lock to advance. The Fighting Irish have other ideas, of course, but will be hard-pressed to emerge victorious from Buck Shaw Stadium. If they manage it, senior sniper Joe Lapira figures to be the catalyst. The NCAA's top scorer in '06, sporting one mean playoff beard, had one goal and one helper in ND's Round 2 win over Oakland. However, anything short of a Lapira hat trick means the Broncos move on.
Central Connecticut State at UMass (Sunday, noon ET)
New England's survivors (Brown also got bounced Wednesday) are playing with house money at this point. Need proof of the parity in college soccer? Look no further than the fact that one of these highly unfancied sides will play for a spot in the College Cup next week. CCSU has had an unreal run so far, but UMass is playing at home and should be supremely confident after beating BC. That'll be the difference in this one.
No. 12 UC Santa Barbara at No. 5 Ohio State (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET) After that incredible run 12 months ago, defending national champ UCSB knows better than most that not much matters before tourney time. So despite coming in as the underdogs, the Gauchos are our pick in this one. No offense to OSU; the Buckeyes have enjoyed their best-ever campaign. The Big Ten champions come into the match riding a 12-game unbeaten streak; their D has been rock-solid; and they are 6-1-1 at Jesse Owens Stadium. However, history shows that experience matters more and more as this competition progresses. UCSB has it; Ohio State doesn't. Gauchos advance.
South Florida at No. 3 Connecticut (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
Could this game provide the token big Sweet 16 upset? You bet. USF's win over Akron proves the Bulls are peaking at the right time, plus all the pressure is on the heavily favored Huskies, who hardly broke a sweat beating Vermont. These Big East foes know each other well, having met twice already in 2007. UConn won both of those (including a 2-0 decision Nov. 10 in the conference quarterfinals), but as hard as it is to beat the same team twice in one season, it is even more difficult to do so three times. If USF can shut down MAC Hermann Trophy fave O'Brian White, it can pull a shocker in Storrs.
Old Dominion at No. 11 Virginia Tech (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
Va. Tech won its first tournament game in five tries since 2002 when it defeated California 3-2 Wednesday. Expect the Hokies to pick up their second victory against the Monarchs. That said, Old Dominion, which stunned No. 6 Brown, should not be taken lightly. VT, focused and disciplined all year, won't underestimate the Monarchs. Plus, the Hokies are getting goals from all over the park, as midfielders Ben Nason and Charlie Campbell (two) provided the scoring versus the Golden Bears. If star striker Patrick Nyarko gets in on the act, Tech will roll.
No. 15 West Virginia at No. 2 Wake Forest (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
You just can't see Wake Forest slipping up at this stage. The Demon Deacons flirted with the top spot in the rankings all season and are desperate to return to the College Cup. Still, WVU is a dangerous opponent. After all, the Mountaineers, making their third-round debut, got past historical ACC heavyweight Virginia, a College Cup participant last year, to get here. The key battle will be between West Virginia playmaker Andy Wright and Wake Forest D Julian Valentin. In the end, Wake's class wins out and the Deacs win comfortably.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.