Five questions for second, third rounds
Half the field is gone, but we're hardly running out of questions as the NCAA tournament shifts to this weekend's second- and third-round games.
Where did Western Michigan come from?
Western Michigan junior Aubrey Sudomier has only herself to blame if the paper she has coming due in American political theory just got more difficult to complete on time.
That quiet Saturday afternoon? Gone, replaced by a trip from the bus to the football stadium for a halftime ceremony in their honor as soon as the Broncos arrived back in Kalamazoo. The extra hours ahead in a week with no juggling act involving soccer and school? Kiss them goodbye, as more practices and another bus trip loom.
And a good night's rest to recharge? Not even close. All of which is just fine by her.
"I had a little bit of trouble sleeping, actually," Sudomier said of her Friday night. "It was just the excitement. And I still couldn't wipe the smile off my face."
On the strength of Sudomier's 84th-minute goal, Western Michigan pulled off perhaps the biggest first-round upset in tournament history with a 1-0 win at No. 2 Marquette. Western Michigan becomes the first team to beat a No. 2 seed in the first round since the NCAA adopted its current format in 2005. It is also just the second time since the field expanded to 64 teams in 2001 that one of the top eight national seeds lost in the first round. (No. 1 Santa Clara lost to USC in 2006, but the Trojans were a top-40 RPI team at the time.) For good measure, it was Marquette's first loss at home in more than two years.
All of the above history was written by a team that saw its own postseason hopes hanging by a thread in a quarterfinal penalty kick shootout against Kent State in the Mid-American Conference tournament two weeks ago. Western Michigan survived, and now faces Notre Dame for a place in the Sweet 16.
"To be honest, we were still getting used to being MAC champions," Sudomier said. "We still hadn't even wrapped our heads around that yet. We just felt so privileged to even be in the NCAA tournament this year. Honestly, winning [Friday] was just surreal. I still haven't even come to terms with it. It was absolutely amazing."
Western Michigan didn't want to park the proverbial bus by putting everyone in a black jersey behind the ball against Marquette, but the reality of playing one of the best teams in the country on its field meant playing a lot of defense. Marquette ended up with a 17-6 shot advantage, modest for a seed by first-round standards. Sudomier and fellow forward Rachel Chaney spent a good portion of the evening checking back to help with the defensive effort, but they looked for any opportunity to counterattack.
And, when Sudomier saw a run open up as teammate Kylie Nylen gathered the ball late in regulation, she went. Nylen's pass put Sudomier behind the defense with the ball at her feet.
"I just felt pressure behind me, so shot it in the left corner and it went in," Sudomier said. "It felt good leaving my foot. I was just hoping to God it was going in."
Two years ago, Western Michigan found itself without a coach a little more than a month before the season when Suzie Grech left for an assistant position at the University of Houston. Enter Nate Norman, only a few years removed from his own college career at Notre Dame and two years removed from the end of a professional career derailed by injuries. Amid the upheaval, the Broncos went 5-10-4 and failed to reach even the conference tournament.
This season began with back-to-back losses at Saint Louis and Iowa. The record after a month was 1-3-2, and the scoring woes that had plagued the Broncos the previous year still seemed present. Then came a four-goal outburst against Western Illinois, including the first of the year from Sudomier. Five goals followed in the next game and four more in the game after that. Now the Broncos head to Norman's alma mater with a 12-5-5 record. It will be a busier week than most expected they would have.
"Enjoy it for a day, but we've got to get back to work," Norman said he told his players after the win. "We've got to prepare for the next game. Obviously, it's a fantastic moment for the players, for the coaching staff -- lifetime memories were created -- but you can't be satisfied."
What are five more first-round headlines?
St. John's makes its first win count: If not for Western Michigan, St. John's claiming the program's first NCAA tournament win would have been the weekend's biggest upset. Entering the tournament 5-5-4 since a 6-0-0 start, and losers of five of six away from home, St. John's went to Orlando and beat No. 3 UCF 3-1 despite being outshot 26-3. There really wasn't much to support an at-large bid for the Red Storm, who beat just one NCAA tournament team all season (fellow bubble resident DePaul), but they're still here while half the field is home. That is a good thing if it means more of Rachel Daly, the sophomore star from England who scored her 23rd goal of the season in the win.
Colorado is the last team standing: The last team from the state of Colorado, at least. The only one of the state's three tournament entrants that didn't play at home in the opening round, Colorado is the only one left after it beat No. 4 Denver 1-0 and Duke eliminated Colorado College in a penalty shootout. Combined with the wins for Western Michigan and St. John's, that matched the number of first-round upsets in the past four tournaments combined.
Arin Gilliland rewrites Bluegrass history: When Gilliland arrived in 2011 as a highly touted national recruit with local ties, Kentucky had been to the tournament once in the preceding nine seasons. Its tournament history consisted of one draw and seven defeats. The Wildcats now own back-to-back first-round wins, the most recent a 3-1 victory at home against Ohio State in which Gilliland scored the winner and had an assist. A defender by trade who has logged a lot of minutes up top for Kentucky and has 12 goals and 10 assists this season, she is far from the only reason postseason success is no longer an anomaly in Lexington. But, when talking about the impact one player can have on a program that isn't a traditional power, start with her.
Arkansas highlights SEC power: The ACC lived up to its billing as the nation's best conference in the first round. In addition to all four No. 1 seeds advancing with relative ease, unseeded Boston College, Duke, Notre Dame and Wake Forest also won. But, perhaps equally impressive, given its mediocre history in the tournament, was that the SEC went 6-0 in the opening round. The only one of its teams to win on the road was also the one that recorded its program's first NCAA tournament win, as Arkansas went to Oklahoma State and came out with a 2-1 win. Up next? St. John's.
Illinois State reps the small schools: It wasn't a great weekend for teams from outside the major conferences (counting the WCC as such a league in women's soccer), but Illinois State provided a bright spot. By eliminating Louisville on the road in a penalty shootout, it joins Western Michigan and Boston University as outsiders in the second round.
Are fans watching a fair tournament?
Something rarely seen in first-round games occurred as the second half got underway in Saturday night's game between West Virginia and Rutgers in Morgantown. W.Va. It had nothing to do with the action on the field but instead involved fans searching for open seats after the halftime reshuffle of bathroom breaks and concession runs.
Demand exceeded supply on this occasion, a crowd of 1,610 filling just about every available seat inside Dick Dlesk Stadium. Each rumble of feet on metal bleachers as West Virginia took a corner kick, each groan when a scoring chance for the home team went wanting, and each collective exhale when the same proved true for the visitors lent the evening not only a festive atmosphere but the air of something that mattered to more than friends and family.
It was loud enough that the complete silence that fell over the penalty kick shootout at the end felt noticeably jarring. It was a good night for soccer.
"It's nice for everyone to experience that," West Virginia coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said. "I do think [there are] some drawbacks after that, but I do think the opportunity for so many teams to host, and those numbers now to host, is nice for the student body and for the athlete."
Until the 2011 tournament, a game between two unseeded teams such as West Virginia and Rutgers likely would have taken place as the undercard of a doubleheader on a seeded team's home field. And, in more cases than not, the two teams would have been lucky to play in front of a hundred fans. That year ushered in the new format in which 32 schools host single games and the second round is pushed to the second weekend and paired with the third round.
Certainly, not every game was packed this weekend, but -- from BYU (1,897 fans) to Colorado College (1,739) to Texas Tech (1,123) -- games between unseeded teams provided good atmospheres.
It is also not a system without its perils, though. The selection committee clearly used the format to place an even greater emphasis on geography, and that's problematic. Consider the case of unseeded Mississippi, which routed Jackson State 9-0 to advance to face No. 1 Florida State. Jackson State was the lowest-ranked team in the bracket, based on adjusted RPI, by nearly 100 places. There is no way the selection committee can put it opposite an unseeded opponent that happens to be 170 miles away and say competitive integrity matters as much as saving money.
Ole Miss gets Jackson State. Seeded teams Denver and Santa Clara get Colorado (No. 39 RPI) and California (No. 38), respectively.
More schools hosting is a good thing. That it comes at the expense of a fair tournament in some cases is not.
Which No. 1 seed faces the most difficult second weekend?
Pick a Virginia school. As mentioned a week ago, No. 1 overall seed Virginia faces a tricky second week with Georgetown on Friday and, if that goes according to seed, either No. 4 Penn State or Wake Forest. Penn State still has a potent, if erratic, attack and postseason experience from last season's run to the national championship game. Wake Forest is an ACC rival.
But when it comes to the toughest road to the quarterfinals, Virginia Tech gets the nod.
Hit hard by injuries over the course of the season, West Virginia looked like a team with a lot of young players in key roles in its first-round draw against Rutgers (the Mountaineers advanced 3-0 in the shootout). The key distinction is they are young, talented players, such as Canadian under-20 international Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan, playing alongside a very good keeper in Sara Keane and one of the more underrated players in Frances Silva. A team that deserved to be seeded in the first place, West Virginia will be a very difficult second-round opponent for the Hokies if its jitters are gone.
If seeds hold, that means No. 4 Santa Clara will await Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16 on Sunday (although Boston University, the second-round opponent for the Broncos, has a long history of being a postseason thorn in the side as an underdog). All Santa Clara brings to the table is one of the most potent attacks in the country.
What are the best second-round games?
No. 2 Florida vs. Duke: It's possible Duke will never be the team it was predicted to be in the preseason. It escaped more than dominated a first-round road trip to Colorado College. But the Blue Devils are here, and there remains a tantalizing amount of talent on the roster. Florida rolled over Jacksonville as expected, but this will be its first real test without midfielder Havana Solaun, the instrumental playmaker lost to a torn ACL in the SEC final.
No. 4 Penn State vs. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons haven't been the same without Katie Stengel, but a team doesn't survive the ACC without being resourceful and resilient. Look at the first-round win against Morehead State in which Courtney Owen, a senior making her fourth career start, scored the eventual winner. Penn State should have too much firepower in this one, but it also should have fewer than six losses, including five in the past 10 games.
No. 3 South Carolina vs. Stanford: This game, set for a neutral field at UCLA, might be the most intriguing of the round. South Carolina is the seed, but Stanford is the team with the experience and is playing on much more familiar turf (not to mention in a more familiar time zone). The Cardinal never have solved their finishing problem, suggesting it's more of a fundamental flaw than anything else, but Taylor Uhl marked a return to the starting lineup with the only goal in a 1-0 first-round win against Cal State Fullerton. South Carolina isn't a scoring machine, but it does have 16 goals in its past six games.
No. 4 Texas A&M vs. Texas Tech: It's a Big 12 rivalry renewed a long way from home in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Red Raiders come off an impressive 3-0 first-round win against Minnesota, but that was at home in Lubbock. They scored 14 goals in 11 games away from home, compared with 32 in 11 matches at home. Meanwhile, coming off a full three-game stay in the SEC tournament, Texas A&M needed an overtime goal at home just to get past Utah in the first round.