We are now less than a month away from the start of the NCAA Tournament, and with that being said, there are some key conference matchups this week that have conference standings and conference tournament implications. Let’s dive right into five matches that you need to be watching this week. by Brian Ludden
Marshall @ West Virginia – Wednesday
The Mountain State Derby is first on our list of must-watch games this week, and they don’t get much better than this. Top-ranked Marshall looks to preserve their perfect record on the season, facing off against Sun Belt Conference and in-state rivals #2 West Virginia.
West Virginia enters the week as one of the handful of teams in the nation that remains unbeaten heading into the third week of October. The Mountaineers sit at 9-0-4, with a win against Portland (ranked #6 at the time) and a draw vs. UCF are the notable results on West Virginia’s schedule. Three draws in conference play, two of which came against teams in the bottom three in the Sun Belt standings, have seen West Virginia slip six points behind their in-state counterparts in the conference table. West Virginia can mathematically secure their spot in the conference tournament with a win and a few other results going their way, but the larger focus will be on fighting for a top two seed and the right to host at minimum their first two matches in the tournament. West Virginia sits one point back outside the top two, and a win will allow them to not only keep the pressure on those ahead of them, but also ruin their rivals’ perfect season.
Speaking of that perfect season, Marshall remains the only D1 school, men or women, who can make the claim of not having a single blemish on their record. The Thundering Herd come in with a 12-0-0 record, on the back of a big 6-1 win over Coastal Carolina. Nine of the twelve wins for Marshall have come by a multi-goal margin, including five by 3 goals or more. It’s no hot take to say that Marshall has been the best team in the nation so far, and Wednesday’s match will likely be the hardest challenge that they face until the Sun Belt Tournament at the earliest. Marshall can clinch a top two seed with a win and a few other results going their way on Wednesday night (Old Dominion, South Carolina, and Georgia State all failing to win). One thing to note, however, is that Marshall has not won at West Virginia in their past four visits, losing all four. Marshall’s last win in Morgantown came on October 29, 1997. The Thundering Herd will have to forget the past and focus on the task at hand if they hope to continue their perfect season.
A key player to watch for West Virginia will be leading scorer Marcus Caldeira, who has tallied 9 goals on the season. Yutaro Tsukada will look to provide the assists, as he leads the team in that category with 8. Tsukada also has four goals to his name.
For Marshall, Matthew Bell and Marco Silva lead the team with 7 goals each. Bell also leads the team with 9 assists, while Pablo Simon and Adam Aoumaich combine for an additional 10 goals and 10 assists.
How to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: Marshall 2, West Virginia 1
Stanford @ Oregon State – Thursday
Thursday nights usually means that there aren’t many top teams playing, with most sides getting ready for their weekend matchup. However, in the Pac-12, Thursday nights bring in-conference matchups. This Thursday night, #11 Stanford looks to improve their conference standing against Oregon State.
Oregon State did not have a very strong out-of-conference slate, with losses to FIU, Seattle, and Loyola Marymount. However, the Beavers have made up for it with their in-conference performance, as wins over Stanford and Washington have guided Oregon State to the top of the conference standings. With a 5-4-3 record on the season, the Beavers are flirting with a .500 record that is the minimum requirement for consideration for an at-large berth. Before last week’s action, Oregon State came in 27th in the RPI rankings. However rather than leaving their fate in the hands of the selection committee come tournament time, Oregon State will obviously be hoping they can win the Pac-12 and secure their own fate that way. After five conference games, Oregon State currently sits one point ahead of UCLA in the conference standings, although UCLA does have a game in hand. If both sides continue winning and keep the pressure on each other, we could be set for a potential title decider on October 29 in Los Angeles between the two teams. Keep in mind that the Pac-12 is one of the few conferences that does not have a conference tournament, but rather crowns the regular season winner as the conference champion.
Stanford began their season hot, with wins over Creighton and Georgetown, but things turned downward once they hit conference play. A loss at home vs. this Oregon State team, along with three other draws, means Stanford currently sits fifth in the six-team conference. A win on Thursday could see the Cardinal move within three points of the top of the conference, and with five games to play following the Oregon State match, a conference title could still be a possibility. Barring a complete collapse in their final six matches, Stanford will still be a lock to make the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid if they fail to win the conference. There’s enough quality in this Stanford side to make a run in the tournament, but two wins in their past seven matches isn’t the type of form they want. A win over Oregon State on Thursday could be the launching pad that Stanford needs to go on a run of wins heading into postseason play.
A player to watch for Oregon State will be leading scorer Logan Farrington, who has recorded 10 goals on the season, including a goal in two straight games. Fran Cortijo leads the team with six assists.
On the Stanford side, Zach Bohane is the team’s leading scorer with five goals on the season, to go with his six assists. Shane de Flores also has three goals and six assists.
How to watch: Pac 12 Networks (Oregon, Bay Area)
Prediction: Oregon State 1, Stanford 1
Notre Dame @ Wake Forest – Friday
In a matchup between the ACC’s top two teams and the two divisional leaders, #6 Wake Forest hosts #7 Notre Dame in some Friday night “ACCtion” (see what I did there? Friday night action? Acction? ACC? anyways…)
Wake Forest enters the week on a seven-match win streak, dating back to a 3-1 win over Liberty on September 19. During that run, the Demon Deacons have outscored their opponents 14-2, and haven’t conceded a goal in their last 400 minutes of action. Wake Forest’s win streak includes wins over Clemson and North Carolina, with a 1-1 draw vs. Syracuse in September being the last time Wake Forest failed to win. From a conference standing perspective, Wake Forest can clinch the Atlantic division title (and the automatic top-two seed in the tournament that comes with a division title) with a win and Clemson loss/draw. Furthermore, a win over Notre Dame would put the two sides level on points atop the overall conference standings, with Wake Forest having the tiebreaker. From there, a win over Louisville on the final day would see Wake Forest secure the top regular season title and top overall seed in the ACC Tournament. With that being said, the Demon Deacons effectively control their own destiny, as two wins from two conference games would give them that top seed. Wake Forest hosts Robert Morris on Tuesday ahead of Friday’s matchup.
Having already secured the Coastal division title, Notre Dame will head into Friday’s matchup knowing that a win will see them clinch the regular season title and top overall seed. After a first round exit in last year’s ACC Tournament, the Fighting Irish will look to go a few steps further and replicate their success of the 2021 postseason, where they won seven matches in a row to win the ACC Tournament and reach the College Cup semifinals. We mentioned Wake Forest’s recent run of form and defensive capabilities, but Notre Dame currently sits on a five-game win streak of their own, and are unbeaten in their last seven. The Fighting Irish are strong at the back as well, conceding just three goals in their past seven matches. Notre Dame, like Wake Forest, will have a non-conference game before Friday’s tilt. The Fighting Irish have a more difficult midweek matchup, as they will travel to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan on Tuesday.
Considering we mentioned Wake Forest’s shutout streak, we have to mention keeper Trace Alphin as a player to watch for the Demon Deacons. Alphin has started every game for Wake Forest, keeping five official clean sheets and playing 85+ minutes in two other shutout wins (although not getting credit for the clean sheet himself). Wake Forest’s leading scorer is Roald Mitchell, who has found the back of the net 8 times on the season.
Opposite Alphin will be Notre Dame keeper Bryan Dowd. Dowd has kept six clean sheets on the season, making 42 saves in the process. Leading the line offensively for Notre Dame is Matthew Roou, with 8 goals.
Where to watch: ACC Network
Prediction: Wake Forest 0, Notre Dame 0
Michigan State @ Northwestern – Friday
Oooh this is gonna be a good one. I can feel it. A Friday night showdown in Evanston, Illinois is on tap, as two teams level on points in the Big Ten standings face off, with #12 Northwestern hosting #9 Michigan State.
We featured Northwestern last week ahead of their game against Penn State, and predicted a 2-1 Northwestern win. We got the score right, but predicted the wrong winner. Northwestern suffered their first defeat of the season at the hands of Penn State which also saw us get a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings. Northwestern and Penn State both have three conference matches remaining, while Michigan State has two. In the Big Ten tournament, all matches are hosted by the higher seed, so the top overall seed would theoretically have home-field advantage the entire tournament should they make it to the championship. For Northwestern, last Friday’s loss to Penn State was the first stain on Northwestern’s record. As we mentioned last week, Northwestern’s turnaround after last season’s dismal 3-9-5 record is still impressive, and is not something that just goes by the wayside following the loss to Penn State. Penn State will play on Tuesday before Northwestern has a chance to rectify Friday’s result, but a win over Michigan State would see the Wildcats keep the pressure on Penn State, as well as show that they can recover from a disappointing loss.
We also featured Michigan State last week, as they faced rivals Michigan. Going along with the rest of their season, it was a 0-0 draw for the Spartans. Michigan State enters with a balanced, and undefeated, record of 6-0-6. It’s been a lot of stalemates for the Spartans so far this season, with four of their six draws coming against conference opponents. However, four draws means four points, and coupled with two wins, puts Michigan State in a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten. The only downside for Michigan State, though, is that they have two conference matches remaining while Penn State and Northwestern both have three. With that being said, Michigan State may not have a chance on the final day to pass Northwestern and Penn State in the standings, but they will undoubtedly be looking to get six points from these last two conference matches and remain in the conversation for the regular season title. Two draws likely won’t be enough to win the regular season title, although from my calculations and predictions, it would probably be enough to secure a home game in the first round of the conference tournament. Assuming that they want to go big and secure the top seed, a win on Friday is essential to keep their regular season aspirations alive.
We mentioned last week that Justin Weiss was going to be a key player for Northwestern, and he delivered, scoring a 32nd-minute goal that actually gave Northwestern a 1-0 lead. Weiss’ goal-scoring tally is up to seven on the season, and he will hope to increase that number under the lights on Friday.
We also pointed out Sean Kerrigan and Jonathan Stout as the main attacking threats for Michigan State, but neither of them scored in last Tuesday’s goalless draw vs. Michigan. Stout was able to get his fourth goal of the campaign on Sunday against Maryland, scoring a 77th-minute equalizer. Stout and Kerrigan are now tied for the team lead with four goals each.
How to watch: Big Ten Network +
Prediction: Northwestern 2, Michigan State 0
Duke @ Pittsburgh – Saturday
Our final featured match is another one with ACC standing and tournament seeding ramifications. A Saturday night showdown at Ambrose Urbanic Field sees Pittsburgh host #18 Duke.
Pittsburgh enters the week with a record of 5-4-3, coming off a loss at Virginia on Friday night. The Panthers sit 7th in the overall conference standings, just north of the cutoff line for a first round home game. However, there is still a chance for Pittsburgh to secure a first round bye, as they sit just three points behind Virginia and Clemson (although they do not have the tiebreaker advantage over Virginia). A 3-0 win over Wake Forest is currently the bright spot on Piuttsburgh’s season, but goalless draws at home vs. Boston College and North Carolina could be games that Pitt looks back on, wishing they could’ve found a winner. But dwelling on the past isn’t something you want to do, and the Panthers need to focus on the task at hand. A win on Saturday would catapult Pittsburgh past Duke and potentially rise as high as third in the overall standings depending on other results around the conference. Pittsburgh will host Duquesne on Tuesday looking to get back on track ahead of Saturday’s showdown.
Duke enters the penultimate conference matchday sitting at fifth in the overall table, just one point behind Clemson and Virginia in third and fourth respectively. Looking at it from a NCAA Tournament point of view, Duke will get an at-large bid if they don’t win the conference tournament. From the conference tournament perspective, however, Duke is just one point off of the top four, who earn a first-round bye. A 5-3 win over Syracuse is Duke’s best win of the season, while losses against Clemson, North Carolina, and Notre Dame are the three losses that the Blue Devils have suffered this season. Duke will still be looking to add another win to their resumé with the hopes of securing a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, while they too can move up to third in the conference with a win and other results going their way. Unlike most ACC teams, Duke will not play an out-of-conference midweek match, and will instead spend the whole week preparing for Saturday’s matchup.
A player to watch for Pittsburgh will be leading scorer Luis Sahmkow, with six goals on the season. Filip Mirkovic will look to provide the assists, as he leads the team in that category with eight.
For Duke, we always mention Forster Ajago, who is among the top scorers in the country with 11 goals. Nick Pariano will also look to be a threat on the attacking side, as he’s scored four goals and served five assists on the season.
How to watch: ACC Network Extra
Prediction: Duke 3, Pittsburgh 2
Picture from West Virginia Athletics