Demon Deacons look like the favorites to repeat

August 18, 2008
Burns OrtizBy Maria Burns Ortiz
(Archive)

After how last season's NCAA tournament shook out, I was tempted to pull my 2008 preseason rankings out of a hat. That's the only way a person would have picked Wake Forest, UMass, Ohio State and Virginia Tech for the College Cup heading into last season.

APMarcus Tracy and the Demon Deacons are looking for back-to-back NCAA titles.

However, I restrained myself (for the most part) and used my own version of the RPI -- Randomness, Probability and Intuition.

I'll have to wait until Dec. 14 to see how my interpretation stacked up, but here's how I see things going:

1. Wake Forest. As always, the No. 1 spot goes to the reigning national champion, but in this case, it's not just lame duck distinction.

With 19 returning letter-winners (including nine returning starters) and a number of promising recruits, the tournament-tested Demon Deacons look poised to join an elite list. Only five schools have won back-to-back championships: St. Louis, San Francisco, Virginia, Indiana and Michigan State.

2. University of Illinois-Chicago. For some reason, I have a gut feeling about the Flames. Only time will tell whether it's the kind of gut feeling that means you were right or the kind of gut feeling you get when you realize you were incredibly off base. But coach John Trask and his staff have done a stellar job turning the program into a perennial tournament team.

Impressive defense always helps, and goalkeeper Jovan Bubonja has proved to be one of the nation's top keepers the past two years -- finishing last season with a .558 goals against average and posting 12 shutouts. Look for the junior to anchor the Flames once again. With eight starters returning from last year's Elite Eight squad, I'll be surprised if UIC isn't playing in suburban Dallas come December.

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3. Connecticut. In 2006, the Huskies were expected to contend as one of the best teams in the country and fell off the map. In 2007, UConn was pretty much written off heading into the preseason, only to start the season with a six-game winning streak and win 11 of its first 12 games en route to a 20-3-1 finish.

Seeking a national title -- or at the very least, a College Cup berth -- Hermann Trophy winner O'Brian White returns to lead a talented core of players from last season's Big East championship team. No one doubts UConn's talent. The question is simply whether this year's squad will pick up where last year's squad left off or stumble like it did the year before.

4. Northwestern. There's a Big Ten team near the top of these rankings, but for once, it's not Indiana. A year removed from their impressive Elite Eight run, the Wildcats went 12-5-3 in 2007 before falling to crosstown foe the University of Illinois-Chicago in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

With nine starters returning from 2007, Northwestern should be stronger in almost every facet. (I incurred the wrath of some Wildcats supporters for criticizing their media guide a while back, and even that has improved dramatically.) Expect this team to be one of the final teams left standing in the Big Ten and the country.

5. St. John's (N.Y.). The Red Storm represent this year's wild card. While for the most part I make my selections with some purpose and justification (which might be my undoing come season's end), this one is more or less completely random -- I went with the team whose final RPI last year (45) coincides with my daughter's birthday (4/5).

Of course, it isn't unfathomable that St. John's could be right up in the mix by the postseason. The team comes in with something to prove after seeing its streak of 15 straight NCAA tournament appearances snapped in 2007. Combine last season's early end with the fact that coach Dave Masur always fields a competitive squad, and this young team (12 freshmen) could be the surprise of the season.

6. Brown. The Bears were an impressive 15-2-1, won the Ivy League title and were ranked among the top 10 in the nation last season, but even then, Brown didn't get its fair share of attention. Going 13-1-1 in the regular season, the Bears led the country with a .912 winning percentage -- finishing the year with the nation's second-best (.861) behind national champion Wake Forest. However, a double-overtime upset by Old Dominion in Brown's first NCAA tournament game made it a long offseason for the Bears -- and gave them plenty of motivation. Even without Matt Britner (last season's Ivy League player of the year), look for the Bears to take center stage as the season goes on.

7. Maryland. The Atlantic Coast Conference is always a safe bet. Coach Sasho Cirovski is always a safe bet. The team with the most highly touted recruiting class in the nation is always a safe bet. A team that brings back nine starters is always a safe bet. As usual, Maryland is about as close as you can get to a sure thing. The Terrapins were upset by a streaking Bradley in double-overtime last season, but in Maryland -- where a deep postseason run has become an expectation -- you can bet the Terps are determined to redeem themselves.

8. University of Massachusetts. I'm not sure whether I truly believe UMass actually will be able to carry over the momentum it built during last year's improbable tournament run, but then again, I never would have expected the Minutemen to make it as far as they did.

With 21 returning letter-winners (including eight starters), the team brings back almost all of its scoring power from last season along with goalkeeper Zack Simmons. UMass should fare well early given its schedule, but the real test will come Oct. 7 when it faces Wake Forest. If the Minutemen can go toe to toe with the top team in the country, they could be capable of anything.

9. South Florida. It takes a lot to come out on top of the Big East, but USF's conference rivals believe the Bulls are capable of doing just that. South Florida is the Big East coaches' preseason pick to take the top spot in the conference's Red Division. USF's seven votes were as many as the No. 2 (Louisville) and No. 3 (St. John's) teams received combined. The Bulls also led the league with three preseason all-Big East picks, including Yohance Marshall for defensive player of the year. Coupled with the fact that its recruiting class is ranked 13th in the nation, South Florida is an easy pick.

10. Santa Clara. Given how big a presence the West Coast has had recently, a California team had to be on the list. Santa Clara gets that honor. True, the Broncos lost the West Coast Conference player of the year (Peter Lowry) and defensive player of the year (Jamil Roberts), but Santa Clara's recruiting class is considered by many to be among the best in the country, and the Broncos are the overwhelming favorite to take their third straight conference crown.

Where is …

Indiana. The past two seasons, I had Indiana in my top 10, and twice, it failed to live up to the expectations I have for teams I put in my completely unscientific polls. Yes, the Hoosiers pretty much always come into the season in the top-10 rankings, but until Indiana ends the year there, it gets no love from me.

Notre Dame. The Irish (like almost every college program annually) had to overcome some key losses heading into last season and impressed me with their ability to do so. This time around, it won't be so easy. The team lost a key leader on the field -- 2006 Hermann Trophy winner Joseph Lapira -- and a key leader off it, as assistant coach Jamie Clark takes over at Harvard.

Then again, never underestimate Bobby Clark's ability to pull together a competitive team.

Boston College. Last season's NCAA stunner no doubt left a bad taste in the Eagles' mouths. Few people won't argue that BC would have bested the Minutemen nine times out of 10; however, it's the one time that counts -- and the reason UMass made the cut and Boston College didn't.

UC Santa Barbara. I'll admit, I've had a soft spot for the Gauchos ever since they won the national title following my first poll and made me look like a genius, but that's not enough to get them on this list. UCSB followed up its championship with an impressive enough 2007 by finishing in the Sweet Sixteen, but after losing two early/mid-first-round MLS draft picks (Ciaran O'Brien at No. 5 and Andy Iro at No. 6) and an early/mid-second-rounder (Eric Avila at No. 19), I'm going to need to see greatness from the Gauchos before I proclaim it.

The other two teams from last year's College Cup (Ohio State and Virginia Tech). I know ending the season in the Final Four is supposed to virtually guarantee a team a spot in next year's preseason rankings, but I don't see a point in putting a team in if I don't believe it will stay there.

Virginia Tech replaces more than half its roster, including Hermann Trophy finalist Patrick Nyarko, and it will take the Hokies time -- likely more than one season -- to get the squad back to the level they elevated themselves to last season.

As for Ohio State, it's absolutely nothing against the Buckeyes. It's just the simple fact that there is virtually no chance three of last year's four College Cup teams will make it back -- and while UMass admittedly is a long shot, I don't think OSU's chances are better, especially when you consider that UMass holds the edge in returning players (21 letter-winners/eight starters for the Minutemen versus 14/seven for the Buckeyes).

But enough with the prognostication; let's just see how it all ends up.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.