After a regular season full of upsets and exciting matchups, we’ve reached conference tournament time. Top conferences such as the ACC and Big Ten kick off their conference tournaments this week, while other conferences such as the Sun Belt wrap up their regular season schedules during the week and begin their conference tournaments this coming weekend. With that being said, we have a mix of regular season matches and conference tournament openers in this week’s five matches you need to watch. By brian Ludden
Vermont @ New Hampshire – Tuesday
A top-of-the-table clash in Durham will determine the America East regular season champion and top seed in the America East Tournament, as New Hampshire hosts Vermont.
With a record of 10-1-4 and a top-10, New Hampshire is virtually a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Furthermore, the Wildcats look to be in good position for a top-16 seed and a bye in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In the recent collegesoccernews.com bracketology, New Hampshire was predicted to receive the #8 overall seed. Wins over Hofstra, Florida International, and UMBC (three teams all in the RPI top 30) are notable results on New Hampshire’s schedule. From an NCAA Tournament perspective, the Wildcats were ranked 12th in the committee’s initial rankings, and have won both of their matches since then. It can be logical to think that a win over Vermont would all but secure a seed and a bye for New Hampshire, and would become the most impressive win on their resumé. From an America East perspective, a win for New Hampshire would give them the regular season title and top overall seed in the America East Tournament, meaning that the America East title goes through Durham. Neither New Hampshire or Vermont necessarily need an America East title and automatic tournament bid, but a piece of silverware and conference title is something that the players will still want and still compete for.
Vermont comes into the game with a record of 11-3-2, which will also get them in the tournament via an at-large bid if necessary. However, the Catamounts are also in pursuit of a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament, and they currently seem to be on the cusp of the top 16. Vermont came in higher than New Hampshire in the committee’s in-season rankings, where they were put one spot higher than New Hampshire at 11. However, a loss to UMBC would push them down below New Hampshire, although potentially not completely out of the top 16. The CSN bracketology has Vermont as the final seeded team, at #16, in the same quarter as New Hampshire and predicted top overall seed Notre Dame. From a conference standpoint, at stake on Tuesday for Vermont is not only the top overall seed, but also their first regular season title since 2017. In terms of seeding for the NCAA Tournament, a win would help bolster Vermont’s resumé, and potentially put them back ahead of New Hampshire in the committee’s eyes.
New Hampshire’s leading scorer and player to watch is Eli Goldman, who has tallied 7 goals on the season. Bilal Kamal also has four goals and a team-high five assists.
For Vermont, Yaniv Bazini leads the team with 7 goals on the season, to go with 3 assists. In net for the Catamounts is one of the conference’s top keepers in Owen Jack, who has kept 8 clean sheets on the season.
How to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: New Hampshire 1, Vermont 0
Kentucky @ Georgia Southern – Tuesday
A hot Kentucky team faces off vs. Georgia Southern in a key game for Sun Belt Tournament qualification.
Georgia Southern comes in at a measly 2-8-6 overall, while a 1-4-3 conference record gives them 6 points and means they currently sit at 9th in the Sun Belt standings. The Eagles two wins this season have come nearly two months apart from each other, vs. UNC Asheville in August and at Old Dominion just over a week ago. A goalless draw in Morgantown vs. West Virginia is Georgia Southern’s best result this season. Needless to say, a Sun Belt Conference championship is the only route into the NCAA Tournament for Georgia Southern, and they currently sit on the outside looking in. Only the top 8 teams in the Sun Belt will participate in the conference tournament, so Georgia Southern will need at least one point to have at least a chance of making it. A draw would mean that Georgia Southern will need to rely on other results, but a win would put them level on points with Kentucky, and with having the head-to-head tiebreaker, would put the Eagles into the Sun Belt Tournament. Georgia Southern is one of the worst offensive teams in the nation, with only 11 goals on the season. Honestly, a Cinderella story doesn’t seem likely for Georgia Southern, although they will undoubtedly be fighting for qualifications and look to go on an improbable winning streak.
Speaking of winning streaks, Kentucky has shown that they could be a potential problem in November. After a dismal start to the season, the Wildcats have completely turned it around in the past few weeks. After going on the road and defeating #1 Marshall by a 2-0 scoreline, Kentucky then shutout new-#1 West Virginia in a 1-0 victory. Back-to-back wins over #1 teams has seemingly rejuvenated Kentucky’s season, with the Wildcats now sitting in a Sun Belt Tournament spot. However the work isn’t done yet, as qualification hasn’t been mathematically secured. Knowing that winning the Sun Belt Tournament is the only way into the Big Dance, there’s added pressure on Kentucky to ensure that they first get into the conference tournament. The simplest way for Kentucky to get into the conference tournament is to win or draw vs. Georgia Southern. Securing a point would ensure at least the 8 seed, but would also likely mean that Kentucky will face one of the conference’s (and nation’s) best teams in UCF, Marshal, or West Virginia. We did just see Kentucky upset two of the aforementioned teams, but beating one of the best teams in the nation twice in such a short span won’t be easy. A win for Kentucky puts them in realistic contention for a top five seed, meaning that they would avoid one of the “top dogs” until at least the second round. With a Sun Belt Tournament on the line, Kentucky will look to continue their recent form to not only get into the tournament, but carry plenty of momentum into the postseason.
We mentioned that Georgia Southern doesn’t score many goals, with joint-top scorers Ty Wilson and Jack Ireland only having three goals apiece. Wilson, Ireland, and the rest of the Georgia Southern team will have to improve and find the back of the net in order to keep their season alive.
Kentucky is also a team that doesn’t score many goals, averaging just over 1 goal per game. Mason Visconti is one of four Kentucky players who lead the team with three goals each, and it was Visconti who scored a brace vs. Marshall to lead the Wildcats to a 2-0 win. He’ll look to have a similar impact on Tuesday.
How to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: Kentucky 2, Georgia Southern 0
Louisville @ Pittsburgh – Wednesday (ACC Tournament 1st round)
The first round of the ACC Tournament begins on Wednesday, with the most notable match being Louisville vs. Pittsburgh. It’s a match that not only determines who advances to the quarterfinals, but also a match with potential NCAA Tournament implications.
Pittsburgh finished the regular season with a record of 6-5-4, which culminated with a heavy 6-0 loss to Notre Dame on Friday night. Before Friday’s loss, Pittsburgh was in the field of 48 in the CSN bracketology. Yes, Notre Dame is one of the best teams in the country, but a 6-0 loss is still a glaring loss on Pitt’s resumé. We don’t know what the committee thinks of Pittsburgh, but the only way to remove any doubt and play your way in is to win the conference tournament. Despite the loss to Notre Dame, Pittsburgh still secured a home game in round one by virtue of other results. Home field advantage may not always be much of an advantage for some teams, however for Pitt, they’ve made Ambrose Urbanic Field somewhat of a fortress. The Panthers have suffered just one loss at home this season, a 3-1 loss to Marshall. On the flip side, Pittsburgh has mightily struggled on the road, putting up a 0-4-1 record. The only time Pittsburgh didn’t lose at home was a 0-0 draw against the conference’s worst team, Boston College. So playing at home has definitely proved to be a good thing for Pitt, and they will hope to continue their strong home form on Wednesday night. Another loss may put Pittsburgh’s hopes of an at-large bid at risk, while a win would give them a rematch vs. Notre Dame and potentially allow them to breathe a little easier on selection day.
Louisville started the season strong with four wins in a row to open the campaign, then held defending champions Syracuse to a 2-2 draw. However, the Cardinals saw a dip in form once they got into the thick of ACC play, and limped to a 2-4-2 conference record. Two wins over NC State and Boston College were the only instances in which Louisville took all three points in conference action, and as a result, they finished 9th in the conference standings. However in terms of the NCAA Tournament, Louisville don’t really have any at-large hopes to fall back on. An RPI in the 50s likely means that Louisville will have to win the ACC Tournament in order to get to the NCAA Tournament. Louisville fans might be wondering if wins over Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Clemson, followed by a close loss to Wake Forest, would be enough to get an at-large bid. I’m not a psychic and I can’t tell you a definitive yes or no, but as I’ve preached over the last few weeks, the only way for Louisville to absolutely make sure that they are in the NCAA Tournament is to win the ACC. A win over Pitt would give Louisville a chance for a quality win vs. Notre Dame, but a loss will end the Cardinals’ season.
A player to watch for Pittsburgh is leading scorer Luis Sahmkow, who has six goals on the season. Meanwhile, Filip Mirkovic will look to add to his tally of nine assists.
For Louisville, Damien Barker John is the team’s leading scorer with eight goals. Sander Roed and David Boccuzzo lead the team with six assists each.
How to watch: ACC Network
Prediction: Pittsburgh 2, Louisville 1
Wisconsin @ Indiana – Friday (Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals)
The Big Ten Tournament kicks off on Friday, with top-seeded Indiana hosting Wisconsin.
Although they won the Big Ten regular season title and are the top overall seed in the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana aren’t a shoo-in to the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers have struggled at times this season, with a loss to USF and draws vs. Wisconsin and Ohio State are three games where they would’ve expected to pick up wins. The somewhat disappointing season for Indiana has resulted in an RPI around the 40s. In the recent CSN bracketology, Indiana weren’t in the predicted field, and also weren’t considered to be one of the teams on the bubble. The Hoosiers do have a win over Penn State and a draw vs. Notre Dame on their resumé as two notable results. A big 4-1 win over Rutgers on Sunday, combined with a few other results, gave Indiana the top overall seed and home field advantage through the entire tournament, should they make it to the championship. Obviously a conference tournament title would give Indiana the automatic bid, but a few wins could also bolster their resumé and potentially see them move into consideration for an at-large bid. However a loss to 8-seed Wisconsin could very well mean the end of the road for Indiana, following their run to the College Cup Final just last season.
Wisconsin finished their regular season with a record of 6-4-6, and a 2-2-4 conference record. The Badgers finished level on points with Ohio State and Rutgers, but were given the 8 seed due to tiebreakers. A win over then-#2 Kentucky is Wisconsin’s most notable result, while draws vs. Indiana, Northwestern, and Penn State are other good results for Wisconsin. The Badgers won’t be in contention for an at-large bid, so winning three straight securing the Big Ten’s automatic bid is the only way in for Wisconsin. A bit of a historical storyline coming into this Big Ten Quarterfinal is that Wisconsin has never beaten Indiana in Bloomington. The Badgers defeated Indiana in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, although that was at a neutral site in Westfield, Indiana. If Wisconsin wants any chance of making a run and shocking the Big Ten, they’ll have to start it with a win at a stadium where they’ve never tasted victory before.
We’ve mentioned him before, but Samuel Sarver will be a player to watch for Indiana, as he leads the team with seven goals and four assists. Karsen Henderlong is another attacking threat, with three goals and three assists.
Wisconsin’s top scorers are Thomas Raimbault and Mitchell Dryden, who both have three goals on the season. Maxwell Keenan leads the Badgers with four assists.
How to watch: Big Ten Network
Prediction: Indiana 1, Wisconsin 0
UCLA @ Stanford – Sunday
What better way to close out your weekend than some Sunday evening Pac-12 action? A matchup between two teams with postseason hopes sets up nicely for an entertaining in-state battle.
Stanford looks to be in the conversation for a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with a 7-2-5 record putting them around 16 in various polls, rankings, and predictions. In the recent CSN bracketology, the Cardinal were predicted as the #15 overall seed. Wins over Creighton and Georgetown are highlights on Stanford’s schedule. A home loss vs. San Francisco seems to be an outlier, and in the grand scheme of things will likely not cost Stanford too much. However in recent times, draws vs. Washington and California have seen Stanford slightly lose pace in the conference standings. Stanford doesn’t need the auto bid to make the NCAA Tournament, and despite being mathematically alive, it doesn’t look like the Pac-12 title will be going back to Stanford. The Cardinal likely won’t be focused on the long-shot prospects of winning the Pac-12, but a win would bolster their hopes of securing that top-16 seed and first round bye in the NCAA Tournament. Stanford will face San Diego State on Thursday ahead of Sunday’s meeting with UCLA.
UCLA played their way off the bubble in the updated CSN bracketology, with wins over San Diego State and Washington. Those two wins, along with a draw vs. Oregon State, likely have the Bruins feeling a bit more comfortable with their at-large chances. From a Pac-12 title perspective, UCLA is well in control of their own chances, as five points from their last three games will secure the Pac-12 title and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. UCLA will face California on Thursday, and a win there could mean that a win on Sunday would secure the Bruins’ third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. A top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament may be a long shot for UCLA, but three wins to end the regular season, including a win over Stanford on Sunday, could potentially give the Bruins a case. On the flip side however, some poor results vs. two weaker teams in California and San Diego State could see UCLA miss out on the conference title and slip out of the NCAA Tournament field completely.
A player to watch for Stanford is Zach Bohane, who leads the team with five goals and nine assists. Shane de Flores also has five goals and six assists of his own.
On the UCLA side, Jack Sarkos has eight goals on the season, which leads the team. Ryan Becher and Sean Karani also have four goals each.
How to watch: Pac-12 Networks (Bay Area, Los Angeles)
Prediction: Stanford 2, UCLA 2
Picture from New Hampshire Athletics
Brian Ludden is a contributing writer for College Soccer News.