Plenty of intrigue in NCAA soccer bracket

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Stanford and star player Chioma Ubogagu are set to defend their NCAA title.

For the first time since 2000, women's college soccer will crown its national champion west of the Rocky Mountains, when the College Cup comes to San Diego in a little more than three weeks.

But as the NCAA tournament begins at 32 sites this weekend, there is a distinctly Atlantic feel to the bracket, specifically the Atlantic Coast Conference. One year after three of its teams -- Duke, Florida State and Wake Forest -- reached the semifinals, the ACC boasts six of the 16 national seeds. Next-closest are the Big Ten, Pac-12 and West Coast Conference, with two seeds each.

Now much more than just North Carolina, will another ACC team finally win a championship? Or will reigning champion Stanford keep the trophy in California? Plenty of questions need to be answered.

1. Why does Stanford have its work cut out for it?

Way back on Aug. 26, taking us deep enough into the recesses of history that someone at the time actually cast a vote for Michigan as the No. 1 team in college football, Stanford lost a soccer game against West Virginia on a neutral field in a tournament hosted by Penn State. It was of note at the time because it ended a streak of 64 consecutive regular-season games without a defeat for Stanford. It's of note now because the Cardinal haven't lost since.

Stanford is a different team than that which won the national title last season. It lacks the same firepower of teams that appeared in the past four College Cups with a variety of Hermann Trophy winners. That said, it's also a different team than the one that lost to West Virginia, having welcomed back star sophomore Chioma Ubogagu from national team duty, goalkeeper Emily Oliver from injury and Courtney Verloo to the spotlight after injuries forced her to the sideline last season.

Stanford has yet to lose a game in which Ubogagu plays. Add in the leadership of senior defenders Alina Garciamendez and Rachel Quon and you have a championship favorite.

But the better question when it comes to the Cardinal might be: What did they do in a past life to the selection committee? The defending champions find themselves in the toughest quadrant of the bracket.

Some of that will sort itself out before it directly affects them -- San Diego State and UCLA both appeared strong contenders for No. 1 seeds of their own entering the final week of the regular season; instead, they could meet in a heavyweight Sweet 16 game. But in addition to potentially facing one of those teams in a quarterfinal, Stanford might well face Santa Clara in the second round and Maryland in the Sweet 16.

Granted, the Cardinal have demonstrated a certain mastery of Santa Clara, their Bay Area neighbors, in recent years, including a 6-1 win in August, but the Broncos spent much of the season in the top 10 of the RPI (they were No. 7 in the last publicly released rankings). All Maryland did was finish second in the ACC, beating North Carolina, Virginia and Wake Forest (twice) along the way, with speed and counterattacking possibilities in Hayley Brock and Becky Kaplan that could nullify Stanford's likely possession advantage.

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Virginia's Caroline Miller

2. Why is Virginia the team to watch?

Recent history suggests momentum isn't everything. In 2002, Portland closed the regular season with a loss and a draw and then went on to win its first national title. In 2004, Notre Dame suffered its first loss of the season in the Big East tournament final, then didn't lose again en route to a national title. In 2007, USC lost its regular-season finale at Washington State, then won two outright road games en route to a national title.

And in 2010, Notre Dame ended the regular season with a draw and then lost at home in a Big East tournament quarterfinal. Five weeks later, the Fighting Irish had the national championship trophy in their possession.

So Penn State, which lost in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, UCLA, which lost at rival USC in the final weekend, and Duke, Florida State, North Carolina and Wake Forest, losers in the ACC tournament, all remain entirely viable.

But momentum is something, and more recent national champions than not entered the NCAA tournament off either a conference tournament title (North Carolina in 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2009) or long winning streaks in lieu of a conference tournament (Portland in 2005, Stanford in 2011). Enter Virginia, the masters of momentum this year.

The Cavaliers started the season without their coach and one of their best players, as Steve Swanson and midfielder Morgan Brian helped the United States win the Under-20 Women's World Cup, and it took some time for things to come together once all were reunited. But they enter the tournament with a five-game winning streak in which they outscored their opponents, all of whom made the field of 64, by a combined 19-3 margin.

Senior Caroline Miller is as good a finisher as there is in the field, Brian tore through the ACC tournament and is poised to solidify her place as one of the sport's rising stars and there are poised, technical players up and down the lineup.

A consistently excellent program over the past two decades, Virginia is nevertheless seeking its first College Cup appearance since 1991. Potential rematches against Duke in the Sweet 16 and Penn State in a quarterfinal make for a tough road. But no team enters the NCAA tournament playing better soccer than the Cavaliers.

3. What about five other teams that could win it all?

BYU (18-1-1): The Cougars are strong contenders to give the West Coast Conference representation in the College Cup for the first time since Portland won the title in 2005. All-American Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall anchors a veteran back line that conceded just 10 goals in 20 games in the regular season, and five players scored between five and eight goals for an offense that ranked in the top 20 nationally. With some of the biggest crowds in the nation -- drawing 3,351 fans per game -- hosting through the quarterfinals is a big deal for a team that is 10-0-1 in Provo this season.

Florida State (16-3-0): The Seminoles stumbled down the stretch after holding down the No. 1 ranking for much of the season, but a few extra days of rest after exiting the ACC tournament early might not be the worst thing. They need more finishing out of an offense that piled up 16 of its 40 goals in three wins against Clemson, College of Charleston and Jackson State, but this remains a better team than the one that made the College Cup last season.

North Carolina (10-5-2): North Carolina didn't win the ACC regular-season title and was bounced in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, but the familiar name remains a candidate to return to the College Cup after a two-year hiatus and is a sleeper to win two games in San Diego. Crystal Dunn, Summer Green and Kealia Ohai, three of the best players on Anson Dorrance's roster, played just 11 games each to this point because of national team commitments.

Penn State (17-3-1): After failing to reach the Sweet 16 in three consecutive seasons, beating only Colgate and Penn in the process, Penn State got over that mental hurdle last season. The next step is getting back to the College Cup, and an offense that averages 2.95 goals per game -- best in the nation -- is a good place to start. Three players reached double-digit goals, including Maya Hayes, scoring 12 in just 14 games. The Nittany Lions swept Big Ten awards for the best forward (Hayes), midfielder (Christine Nairn), defender (Whitney Church) and freshman (Raquel Rodriguez).

UCLA (15-2-2): The selection committee didn't care much for the Bruins, a No. 3 seed in their quadrant of the bracket who likely would have to travel to both San Diego State in the Sweet 16 and, should they escape that sizable challenge, Stanford in a quarterfinal. But this is still a Bruins team that owns an almost four-to-one goal differential and remained unbeaten until three days before Halloween, all while mixing in late arrivals from national team duty.

4. What are the five best first-round games this weekend?

Central Michigan at Michigan: It was good to see Central Michigan rewarded for a difficult schedule with an at-large bid out of the MAC. Good, that is, for soccer fans in places other than Ann Arbor. Coach Greg Ryan did an impressive job with the Wolverines, but the Chippewas are 10-5-1 in road/neutral games, and the defense tasked with slowing Michigan's Nkem Ezurike already faced offensive talents such as Christine Nairn, Colleen Williams and Annie Kunz.

Georgetown at Virginia Tech: Georgetown excelled in a conference many feel was at its low ebb this season. Virginia Tech made the NCAA tournament despite missing the ACC tournament after a ninth-place finish. One of them will earn a little more respect and a place in the second weekend opposite the winner between Baylor and Arizona State.

La Salle at Virginia: With the possible exception of a Baylor team forced to go on the road to play Arizona State, no seeded team has a trickier opener than Virginia. La Salle tasted the NCAA tournament last season and still has many of those responsible for getting there. The Explorers opened this season with a win at West Virginia, never an easy road win, and the tandem of Kelsey Haycook and Renee Washington will test Virginia's defense.

Miami (OH) at Tennessee: Like unseeded Texas A&M, Tennessee didn't get much respect for its work in the SEC this season. But if Brian Pensky's team wants to prove it deserved better, it first has to solve a potent Miami offense. The Lady Vols have one of the tournament's players to watch in New Zealand international Hannah Wilkinson, who scored eight goals in a shortened season, but the MAC champions have five players who scored at least eight goals.

Washington State at Portland: Only two teams scored multiple goals against Stanford this season. One was Penn State, which could probably put up multiple goals on some national teams. The other was Washington State. Granted, those goals came in a 3-2 loss, but that result and a 0-0 draw against UCLA are intriguing, as Washington State faces a Portland team that hit its stride in scoring 17 goals in a six-game unbeaten streak to close the regular season.

5. Which team has the biggest gripe with the bracket?

Dartmouth was ranked No. 29 in the last publicly released RPI, usually safe territory for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. But when the bracket came out, Dartmouth wasn't in it. Only one other team in the top 40 of the final RPI failed to make the field, and that was Louisville, which checked in last at No. 39 and also lost in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.

Dartmouth's résumé was far from rock solid -- its best results were probably close losses against Central Florida, Rutgers, Pepperdine and Princeton, all NCAA tournament teams, but those don't count in the evaluation. Still, in skipping the Big Green in favor of Washington State, Colorado College, Miami (Fla.), Illinois and Auburn, all teams closer to 50 in the last RPI, the selection committee took a pretty sharp turn away from its own precedents.

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