The Road To the College Cup in Louisville Promises To Be Challenging And Exciting
Question: Any thoughts in general about the makeup of the tournament field?
Answer: There were fewer surprises in the makeup of the 48 team field this year than in the past. There were upsets in conference tournaments but they did not change the distribution of the at-large berths to the extent that they have in past seasons. In most cases where there was an upset it didn’t change the distribution in the number of teams in a conference that would earn a berth.
The Summit League and Western Athletic Conference were the exceptions that come to mind. Omaha won the Summit League tournament to earn the automatic berth and Denver got an at-large berth. California Baptist won the Western Athletic Conference to earn the automatic berth and Seattle got an at-large berth. Winning the conference tournament was the only way that Omaha or CBU could receive a berth.
Question: Any thoughts regarding teams that were not included?
Answer: Three teams come to mind.
Penn State (10-4-5) out of the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions advanced to the Big Ten Tournament final where they lost to Indiana 1-0. Their RPI of 46 was probably a key factor in not being included.
Akron (9-2-0) out of the Big East. – The Zips looked to be a lock at one time but their late regular season loss to Creighton and tie with Marquette, their loss to Xavier in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, and their RPI of 41 likely kept them out.
VCU (7-6-5) out of the Atlantic 10. VCU had an RPI of 34 which was better than several of the teams that were awarded an at-large berth. They advanced to the championship match of the A-10 tournament where they lost to number six seed Dayton 2-1. The lack of a signature win (they lost to FIU 4-0, North Carolina 4-1, Missouri State 1-0, and Marshall 1-0) hampered their resume.
Question: Any thoughts regarding teams that were awarded at-large berths.
Answer: Let’s stick to three teams.
Pittsburgh’s RPI of 30 was a plus but you do not often see a team with a 6-6-4 overall record and a 2-3-3 mark in conference play, in the field via an at-large berth. Having said that, Pitt is a team with a win over Wake Forest 3-0 and ties with North Carolina 0-0 and Duke 0-0 that could get hot and make a deep run.
Memphis (10-5-2) has an impressive RPI of 25 and a ten-win season which makes a good case for inclusion. They also have a 1-0 win on the road over Missouri State. However, losses to SMU 2-1 and 3-0, FIU 2-1, FAU 1-0, and Charlotte 1-0 raises questions about their ability to prevail against tougher competition.
Kentucky (7-7-4) – It has been a tale of two seasons for Kentucky. The Wildcats entered the 2023 campaign with great expectations but they were a dismal 3-6-0 at the end of September. Kentucky looked to be DOA at the time in terms of a berth in the NCAA Tournament. However, they still had a pulse and rebounded to go 3-0-4 in October with signature wins over nationally ranked Marshall 2-0 and West Virginia 1-0 to conclude regular season play with a 6-6-4 overall record. The Wildcats then added a 2-1 win over JMU in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament to their resume before losing to Marshall 3-0 in the semifinals. It is hard to get a handle on this Kentucky team.
Question: Any teams in the field that you find interesting.
Answer: Let’s go with three again.
Bryant (16-1-2)– No team has exceeded expectations more than Bryant under first year head coach Ruben Resendes. Bryant was 3-10-1 in 2022 with a 0-6-1 mark in America East Conference play. Bryant has been traveling in unchartered waters all season. This is the first season in which the Bulldogs earned a spot in the America East Tournament. Their lone loss was a 1-0 setback to Vermont in their opening America East contest. It seemed at the time that the loss to Vermont might be the beginning of a downward trend but it did not happen. Bryant earned the number two seed during regular season play. They then upset number one seed New Hampshire in the conference tournament final to win the America East Tournament to earn their first ever berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Junior forward Marc Pitarch Bayot has been a force all season on the offensive side of the ball while goalkeeper Antreas Hadjigavriel has anchored a tenacious Bryant defense that has only allowed a total of four goals. Bryant faces Yale out of the Ivy League in the first round. If they get past Yale, they will face Hofstra. It is clear that this is a very good Bryant team. Just how good remains to be seen.
James Madison (8-4-5) – The Dukes had a six-game span during which they were 0-3-3 and dropped out of the rankings. During that time frame they tied Viginia 1-1, lost to Marshal 3-1, lost to Georgetown 2-0, lost to Coastal Carolina 3-2, and tied South Carolina 1-1, West Virginia 2-2, and Kentucky 0-0. JMU then won four in a row including a 2-1 win over UCF in Orlando before losing to Kentucky 2-1 in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The point being that in retrospect JMU’s six game winless streak was not exactly your typical winless streak given who they played.
This is a team that could make a deep run but they are first going to have to get past Pitt on the road which will not be easy. If JMU can get past the Panthers, they will then have a rematch with Georgetown.
Indiana (12-4-4) – As Yogi Berra once said “It’s déjà vu all over again.” The Hoosiers struggled in the early going this year just like they did last year before settling into a rhythm of play that carried them all the way to the national final.
Indiana was 3-3-3 at the end of September 2023 with a 0-1-2 mark in Big Ten play. They have gone 9-1-1 since then including wins over Wisconsin 2-1, Michigan 4-3, and Penn State 1-0 to win the Big Ten Tournament and the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament that goes with it. However, the Hoosiers were not awarded one of the top 16 seeds which means they have a very tough road to travel to get back to the College Cup in Louisville this year. Indiana faces Lipscomb at home in the first round. If, and that is a real if, they get by Lipscomb, they will have to tangle with Wake Forest in Winston Salem.
The Hoosiers under Todd Yeagley are playing their best soccer of the year at the right time but the bottom line is that this is a team with a very small margin for error. Stay tuned it will be interesting.
Question: Thoughts on the most challenging first round matchups
Answer: There are a lot but five jump out.
Kentucky at Xavier – Both these teams have played their best soccer of the year down the homestretch. That makes this one special.
Seattle (12-3-3) vs. Oregon State (7-5-5) – Seattle’s ten game unbeaten streak was halted when they were unexpectedly upset 2-1 by UNLV in the first round of the WAC Tournament. The Redhawks defeated Oregon State 2-1 when they hosted the Oregon State early in the season. This rematch will be held in Corvalis which may give Oregon State the edge they need to prevail.
SIUE (16-0-3) vs Memphis (10-5-2) – You do not win 16 games as SIUE has without being very competitive but the jury is still out on just how competitive SIUE out of the Ohio Valley Conference really is.
High Point (10-3-5) vs. Charlotte (12-3–1) – Charlotte is coming off a big win on the road over SMU to win the AAC Tournament. High Point upset North Carolina in Chapel Hill last year in the first round of the NCAA Tourney. High Point is very capable of doing the same to Charlotte if the 49ers do not bring their A game.
Yale (10-5-3) vs Bryant (16-2-2) – Bryant has exceeded expectations all year but this is their first ever berth in the NCAA Tournament. This is Yale’s eighth appearance in the NCAA Tourney but their first since 2019. Brant won the America East Tournament while Yale punched their ticket by winning the first ever Ivy League Tournament. Bryant will be fired up but can they stay focused on the task at hand? Can Yale match Bryant’s intensity?
Question: Which of the four brackets is the most difficult?
Answer: That is a difficult question in a year in which it seems there have been so many upsets. All of them are very tough but the Georgetown bracket that includes West Virginia and UCF out of the Sun Belt Conference and UCLA out of the Pac-12 which has looked good down the home stretch looks to be particularly challenging. There also is the possibility that the winner of unseeded Pitt and James Madison could make a run.
The Marshall bracket is going to go through Huntington. That makes this a tough bracket for anyone other than Marshall because it is going to be difficult for any team to beat the Thundering Herb at Hoops Family Field. Right now Marshall looks to be the only team that is going to beat Marshall.
The North Carolina bracket appears to be the one that is most likely to have a seeded team knocked off. It is wide open. Both UNC and SMU have had banner seasons but neither won their conference tournament and both have a small margin for error. Ryan Carmichael (14g, 4a) and Eliot Goldthrop (8g, 12a) combine to give Hofstra an attack that is difficult to contain. Unseeded Bryant and Seattle could surprise in the bracket.
The four seeds in the Notre Dame bracket are all from the ACC which is a little unusual but not surprising. Western Michigan (15-1-3) and Indiana (12-4-4) are among the non-seeded teams in this bracket that could win it all.
Question: Any thoughts on impact players on non-seeded teams.
Answer: Ten players that could be difference makers come to mind.
Charlie Sharp – Western Michigan – The senior forward is the Broncos all-time career leader in goals scored. Sharp has 15 goals and 8 assists on the season including five multi-goal games. He can score in multiples.
Filip Mirkovic – Pittsburgh – Mirkovic is a playmaker and the catalyst for the Panthers. The senior midfielder has nine assists on the season. He will have a big impact on how well Pitt performs.
Babacar Diene – Rider – Diene has 12 goals on the season. The senior forward has a knack for coming through in the clutch with big plays.
James Morris – Seattle – The senior forward has been a force on the offensive side of the ball for Seattle. He has 10 goals and seven assists on the season. He was named the WAC Offensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in goals and assists.
Samuel Sarver – Indiana – Sarver has eight goals and six assists on the season. Five of the junior forwards goals have been game-winners. He is the go-to guy in IU’s offense.
Hesron Barry – Green Bay – A tough senior back who has been named the Horizon League Defender of the Year for the past two seasons.
Emil Jaaskelainen – LIU – An impact player who is the NEC Player of the Year in 2022 and 2023. The senior forward is a top-notch finisher with 11 goals and six assists on the season.
Thomas Beecham – California Baptist – Rock solid defender who was the WAC Defensive Player of the Year. Missed a portion of the season due to injury but a key factor in CBU’s defense.
Finn McRobb -High Point – An impact defender. The senior back is a team captain and the 2023 Big South Defender of the Year.
Tyrese Spicer – Lipscomb – A dangerous player to contain in the attacking third who has 13 goals and three assists on the season. The junior forward is the ASUN Player of the Year.
Thoughts regarding the critical success factors in the NCAA Tournament
Let’s begin by mentioning that seeding is so important because it determines who gets to host. Traveling cross country to play is always a challenge. Playing at home is a big advantage but the potential always exists for an early upset to alter the dynamics of who hosts.
Defense wins championships. It is trite but true. Teams cannot afford costly breakdowns on the defensive side of the ball and must be able to settle into a balance between offensive pressure and defensive stability.
The play in goal. During regular season play games that were tied at the end of regulation were ties. In post season play teams play overtime and then if still tied they are decided by a pk shootout. A solid goalkeeper makes a ton of difference in pk shootouts. It will be interesting to see how well teams that tied a lot of games during regular season play will fare in post season play.
Focus. Continuing to do the things well that worked prior to the NCAA Tourney. It is too late in the season to make major adjustments. The one and done environment of the NCAA Tourney impacts teams in different ways. The ability of a team to enjoy the experience but not get caught up in the hype is very important. Experience makes a difference in this.
Stamina and depth. The grit factor. The grind of the season can take a toll on a team. Fresh legs can be a difference maker as games progress.