Sweet Sixteen lineup comprised of familiar names
After this weekend, eight teams will have plenty to be thankful for.
The first two rounds of the NCAA tournament weren't exactly marked by a rash of upsets -- eight seeded teams remain and no team seeded worse than 10th advanced, so none of the opening results were jaw-dropping. This year's Sweet Sixteen features many of the usual suspects in the NCAA postseason: six ACC teams, Big Ten representation and the West Coast powerhouses.
However, there's bound to be a legitimate shocker in the tournament somewhere along the line. Who will it be in 2009? Take your pick.
(Remember, only 16 teams are seeded in the 48-team tournament, so there is just one of each seed, from Nos. 1-16 -- unlike the 64-team NCAA basketball tournament, which seeds every team in each region.)
Stanford vs. No. 1 Akron
The Zips shut out South Florida 2-0 to easily advance in their quest for a national championship. Now a perfect 21-0, Akron is focused on continuing its march toward solidifying its place in college soccer history. Stanford (12-5-2) has turned around its program at almost warp speed. A year ago, the Cardinal went 4-11-3. Now they're in the Sweet Sixteen. Common sense dictates that Stanford's season ends here, but logic doesn't dictate game outcomes.
No. 9 Northwestern vs. No. 8 Tulsa
This matchup might not garner the most attention, but it should be one of the most interesting to watch. Both teams have proven themselves serious national-level contenders the last few seasons, even if they've managed to fly slightly under the radar. Ninth-seeded Northwestern (11-4-4) is in its fourth straight NCAA tourney and is looking for its third Elite Eight berth in that span. No. 8 seed Tulsa (14-4-2) won its third straight Conference USA title this season and is riding a six-game winning streak. However, while the Golden Hurricanes were given the nod when it comes to seeding, the Wildcats came away with the 3-2 win when the two teams met in September.
Indiana vs. No. 5 North Carolina
These two teams are synonymous with top-level college soccer. UNC returns after finishing runner-up in last season's College Cup. Indiana proves that, unseeded or not, the Hoosiers are always capable of making a national championship run. Indiana has been a tough team to get a feel for this season, going 12-9-1. Yes, the team has played arguably the toughest schedule in the nation, but it's hard to favor a team with nine losses, no matter the opposition. The Tar Heels (14-2-3) have been a top-five team all season and shared the ACC regular-season title with Wake Forest. North Carolina's potential Achilles' heel could be its weaker nonconference schedule. However, an ACC conference slate should be more than enough to offset that.
Drake vs. Boston College One of these two unseeded challengers is guaranteed a spot in the Elite Eight. Boston College (14-8) is a bit of a wild card. The Eagles have gone through the ACC gauntlet, but they are a young team -- with seven freshman registering 10 or more starts this season. Drake (15-6-2) has bobbed in and out of the NCAA rankings this season. The Bulldogs pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament so far, knocking out No. 4 Ohio State in the second round. Drake has already had a record-setting year, tallying the most wins in program history and surpassing 10 wins for just the second time. A place in the Elite Eight would add to that list of accomplishments.
Duke vs. No. 3 Wake Forest
These ACC foes meet for the 40th time, this time with the season on the line. Duke (14-6) holds a 21-13-5 advantage overall, but hasn't beaten Wake Forest since the 2006 ACC tournament. The Demon Deacons' most recent win over the Blue Devils -- a 3-0 win at Wake Forest on Nov. 6 -- is certainly a recent memory for both teams. Duke has plenty of incentive and motivation to beat its in-state and conference rival, but No. 3 seed Wake Forest (15-3-3) is a formidable, and lately dominant, opponent. The Demon Deacons know what it takes to win it all and will do everything they can to assure themselves a place in the College Cup semifinals for the fourth straight year. Getting past the Blue Devils is another step in that direction.
UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 6 UCLA
Probably the marquee game in the Sweet Sixteen, this contest is a rematch of the 2006 national championship game, which UCSB won 2-1. The two teams have met once since then, a 2-2 draw in Westwood last season. This game is definitely a toss-up. No. 6 seed UCLA (11-3-4) holds a slight edge, holding home-field advantage and coming off a regular season that featured a Pac-10 championship and a win over 2008 national champion Maryland. However, the Gauchos (17-4-2) are always competitive and have a demonstrated ability to shine in the postseason. Unseeded UCSB earned an at-large bid and has lost just one of its last nine games, going 7-1-1 in that stretch. UCLA has stumbled slightly the last few weeks, going 2-2-2 in its last six games.
Maryland vs. No. 10 Harvard
Harvard has seemed like a team on the verge of a postseason breakthrough the last few years, but the Crimson haven't been able to make that surge. Maryland, on the other hand, has clearly proven its ability to be the last team standing, winning two of the last four national titles. Maryland has been plagued by injuries this season, but the Terrapins have still managed a 14-5-2 record playing a competitive schedule. Although Harvard (14-3-1) comes into this meeting as the tournament's No. 10 seed, the Ivy League champion is playing the role of the underdog. The Crimson haven't had much success against tough nonconference opponents this season, losing to Wake Forest and Connecticut this year. Still, Harvard has the talent and tournament experience to make the Elite Eight.
Portland vs. No. 2 Virginia
After missing the NCAA tournament the last two seasons, Portland (12-5-5) is making up for lost time and has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2001. It's been an uphill challenge for the Pilots, who will play on the road for the third time in as many tournament games, but Portland has proven it's up for the challenge. This time, the Pilots are facing a familiar opponent. Portland opened the season hosting Virginia and lost 3-0. ACC coaches surprised some people when they picked the then-unranked Cavaliers second in the conference preseason poll. Now it makes perfect sense. The Cavs (15-3-3) captured the ACC tournament title and are undefeated in their last 13 games. That kind of momentum can carry a team deep into the postseason.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.