All to play for as NCAA Tournament field is set
The field is set. Twenty-two teams punched their tickets to the 2008 NCAA tournament over the weekend and everyone else learned their fate Monday when the remaining 26 at-large bids were announced.
From the obvious selections to teams that might have caught us a little off guard, here's a look at some of the schools looking to vie for a national title.
Undefeated no more
The two remaining unbeaten teams fell over the weekend.
Wake Forest entered the ACC semifinals against Virginia with a 24-game undefeated streak, dating back to last season's conference tournament. The Demon Deacons came out of the meeting with a streak intact, but not the one fans from Winston-Salem would have liked. The team lost to the Cavaliers 3-2 -- and has never beaten Virginia in the ACC tournament, going 0-10-2 against the Cavs. However, top-seeded Wake Forest still enters the NCAA tournament as the overwhelming favorite to take the national title.
Loyola College in Maryland also suffered its first loss of the season, falling to Fairfield 1-0 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament final. The ninth-seeded Greyhounds, who were ranked seventh in last week's RPI, were a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament anyway, but for the Stags (No. 80 in the RPI), the win was a season saver.
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Saved by an automatic bid
While Loyola College wasn't having the best weekend, Loyola University in Chicago had major reason to celebrate -- thanks in large part to junior forward (and Horizon League tournament MVP) Mark Halma. Halma scored the only goal of the game in the Ramblers' 1-0 upset of tournament favorite University of Illinois-Chicago in the semifinals, and then followed that up with the game-winner in Loyola's 1-0 win over Cleveland State for the Horizon League championship and its NCAA tournament bid.
Another huge surprise has to be UNC Greensboro. The Spartans entered the SoCon tournament as the No. 7 seed, but came out on top after beating the College of Charleston 2-1 on Sunday afternoon. Ranked No. 101 in last week's RPI, UNC Greensboro (8-11-2) is the lowest seed to ever win the SoCon tournament, but that's all irrelevant as the Spartans enter the first round with the same 2008 NCAA tournament record as everyone else: 0-0.
And then there's Jacksonville, which came in at No. 127 in the RPI (the lowest ranking of any team heading to the NCAA tournament), but managed to punch its ticket after pulling off an upset in the Atlantic Sun tournament and taking the conference's automatic bid. Big props to the Dolphins, who embody the idea that any given team can win on any given day.
Storming into the postseason
While the big story from the ACC might have been Wake's early exit, No. 2 seed Maryland deserves mention. The Terrapins beat 10th-seeded Virginia 1-0 in the conference championship and have won 11 straight.
It's hard to believe fourth-seeded Michigan State is the same team that started the year 2-5. The Spartans certainly have turned it around -- winning 12 of 13 since, including their current nine-game unbeaten streak -- and come into the tournament having won the Big Ten regular-season and conference titles. It's the first time in program history Michigan State has won both in the same year.
No. 5 seed Akron has been among the best in the nation all season, and the Zips show no signs of letting up. The team won its fourth Mid-American Conference title in five years and is rolling, racking up a 16-game unbeaten streak.
This list wouldn't be complete without mentioning seventh-seeded Creighton, which won the Missouri Valley Conference championship over the weekend. The Bluejays haven't lost since Sept. 13, when they suffered their only loss of the season. Since then, the team has gone undefeated in its past 13 games, winning 11 of them.
Stumbling into the postseason
Both the University of San Francisco and Denver might have locked up the West Coast Conference and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation bids, respectively, but neither one heads into the tournament with much momentum.
USF fell 5-4 to Loyola Marymount in its final game of the season, but a Gonzaga loss locked up the league's automatic bid for the Dons. Meanwhile, the Pioneers secured the MPSF title and bid last week, but enter the tournament having seen their 10-game winning streak snapped in a 1-0 loss to New Mexico on Sunday.
Northwestern looked unstoppable to start the season, going undefeated in its first 16 games. But the Wildcats struggled down the stretch and have lost four of their past six. A potential silver lining? No one doubts the talent of this team, and if Northwestern can get back on track, the Wildcats have the potential to go deep. The luck of the draw also appears to be on their side after drawing Loyola University, a team they beat three weeks ago.
Going out West
The Big West takes the title for this year's most underrated conference tournament. Although more eyes are focused on the ACC or Big East matchups, the Big West featured three top-20 teams, any of which is capable of making a deep postseason run.
UC Irvine proved why it's been at or near the top of the polls in the West, shutting out UC Davis 1-0 in the semifinals and beating Santa Barbara 4-2 to redeem the Anteaters' only loss of the season. Irvine heads into its first NCAA soccer tournament surging. The team is unbeaten in its past 10 games, dating back to Oct. 4.
The tournament win also helped the Anteaters earn the No. 14 seed, one spot higher than the Gauchos, who just barely received a first-round bye. Davis will host Denver in the first round.
The biggest at-large surprise comes from the Big West as Cal Poly gets an invitation. The Mustangs had the lowest RPI (54th) of any at-large team, with several teams significantly higher in the rankings not getting a nod. So why were they even considered? Keep in mind teams in the Big West face each other twice -- home and away -- meaning the Mustangs had six conference games against teams ranked in the top 25. Not a lot of programs can make that claim and the selection committee takes those kinds of things into account.
Whose bubble got burst?
Buffalo finds itself with the unfortunate distinction of being the team with the highest RPI (32nd) to not receive an at-large bid. The Bulls didn't have any wins against a major nonconference opponent and the MAC (where Buffalo actually finished third behind Akron and Northern Illinois) doesn't have the strength of schedule a team needs when it's teetering on the tournament edge.
Brown couldn't have expected to get an at-large bid, but the reality of that hit home Monday night. A preseason Ivy League favorite, the Bears spent much of the first half of the season ranked and were considered an NCAA tournament lock before faltering in the final weeks of the regular season. Brown dropped five of its past six games.
It isn't an NCAA tournament without upsets.
The catch this time around is that probably half of the teams in the bracket have the opportunity to make it to at least the Elite Eight, if not the College Cup. As a result, games that might technically be deemed "upsets" won't really be that shocking.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.