Tourney features derby matches in first round
Now that we've had a couple of days to digest the bracket for the 48-team NCAA Tournament field, let's take a look at the most intriguing first-round matchups, plus potential second-round encounters for the 16 seeded schools.
Many will wonder how UCLA, last season's losing finalist, managed to squeak into the dance after what was a horrific season by its standards. The Bruins, boasting valuable tourney experience and almost entirely intact from a year ago, were on the short list of national contenders before the season started. Needless to say, things didn't go according to plan.
But somehow, UCLA's 8-8-3 record was enough to score the team an at-large invite to a 25th straight tournament. That .500 mark was the worst of any of the four dozen participants save Central Connecticut State, which also was 8-8-3 but qualified for the first time by winning the Northeast Conference championship.
UCLA will meet 2005 runner-up New Mexico in Saturday's opener in Los Angeles. The Lobos must be cursing their luck. Even though the Bruins never found their feet this season, there is little doubt UCLA is one of the most talented teams in the country and an extremely dangerous adversary in knockout play.
That the game will be played in Westwood also doesn't help UNM's cause. Moreover, it makes you seriously question the selection committee's motives. Forcing New Mexico, which is 12-4-2 and the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation titlist, to open on the road against the brand-name Bruins, a team that went 4-4-2 in Pac-10 play, is sinister to say the least.
Still, Lobos coach Jeremy Fishbein likes his team's chances. "It's a great matchup for us," Fishbein told The Albuquerque Tribune on Tuesday. "Obviously, we would have loved to play them at home, but right now we're playing with a lot of confidence. We're a good road team."
Whichever team gets through, a second-round tilt at powerful Santa Clara awaits. The Broncos won the West Coast Conference, are seeded seventh and have lost just once all year (15-1-4).
UCLA-New Mexico might be the highlight of Round 1, but there are also some derby matches that stand out as soon as you glance at the bracket.
The two top programs in the Pacific Northwest face off when Portland plays Washington in Seattle. U-Dub went 8-7-4 in the regular season and finished fifth in the Pac-10 with a 3-4-3 mark. The Pilots were 10-5-5 overall and 6-2-4 in the West Coast Conference, good enough for third place.
The longtime rivals have met often in the postseason, most recently in 2004. That was also the last time Portland played in the second season. The Pilots won that encounter on the road, and they lead the all-time NCAA Tournament series 4-3.
This time around, Washington is the favorite. The Huskies already have beaten the Pilots once this season (a 1-0 result at home on Sept. 18). The winner will head to defending national champion UC Santa Barbara next week.
Back east, Boston University travels to Atlantic 10 champ UMass-Amherst for the right to play top seed (and ACC double-winner) Boston College on Nov. 28.
And should Providence upset Colonial Athletic Association rep Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va., in their first-round meeting, the Friars will take on city rival and Ivy League champion Brown for Rhode Island bragging rights.
The top four seeds (BC, Wake Forest, Connecticut and Indiana) should have little trouble advancing to the Sweet 16. But of that quartet, Wake might have the toughest time in its curtain-raiser. Assuming Furman takes care of business and advances past Atlantic Sun foe Campbell, the Paladins will play the Demon Deacons for a shot at the third round. Furman is 18-3, won the Southern Conference and has the quality to pull off a shocker in the unpredictable world of one-and-done play. But we still think Wake is too good not to be playing well into December.
Finally, keep an eye on the potential Creighton-SMU bout in the second round. The Bluejays got the bye and the eighth seed, and the Mustangs will have to down plucky Gonzaga to earn a trip to Omaha's gorgeous Morrison Stadium. But should it happen, it'll be hard to pick a winner between these two evenly matched sides. We'll take SMU in a thriller.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.