NCAA tourney opening weekend preview

November, 10, 2011

Friday's three games to watch

La Salle at Maryland: The Terrapins are good at home -- their lone home loss came via a miracle Boston College comeback, and Stanford's only non-win came in a 0-0 draw in College Park. But La Salle's Kelsey Haycook and Renee Washington are good enough to test an ACC defense, and the Explorers are one of the nation's stingiest defenses.

LSU at No. 3 Texas A&M: It's some gift the Aggies get in exchange for winning the Big 12 tournament and earning a No. 3 seed. What was second prize, the Boston Breakers? LSU gives up some goals, potentially trouble against the nation's best offense, but this is a team that went to Florida on Oct. 23 and came away with a 1-0 win.

Portland at Oregon State: It's almost unthinkable that two-time national champion Portland is playing a first-round road game in its own state, but the Pilots have to be thrilled to be in the field. Portland won at home in the first game between these teams, a 2-1 overtime decision in which Oregon State's tally was an own goal by Portland.

Friday's three players to watch

Stephanie Ochs, San Diego (vs. UC Irvine): The senior with 25 goals and 28 assists in her career is a complete offensive player. The Torreros, whose Past three NCAA tournament games ended in 1-0 defeats, need her at her mesmerizing best.

Maya Hayes, Penn State (vs. Army): The Nittany Lions haven't had many 27-goal scorers to call on. Actually, they've had just two: Christie Welsh and Tiffany Weimer. That's pretty good company for the fleet-footed Hayes.

Kayla Grimsley, South Carolina (vs. Texas): Check out this excellent video feature for more on Grimsley and South Carolina, but the diminutive striker is a workhorse who rarely leaves the pitch and doesn't lack for technical skill.

Friday's big question: What kind of statement will No. 1 Wake Forest make?

This isn't to say the Demon Deacons should be looking to hang a crooked number on Oakland, or that the Summit League champions will be obliging extras. But this is uncharted territory for coach Tony Da Luz's team as a No. 1 seed. Both Wake Forest and fellow No. 1 Florida State have something to prove -- neither finished high enough in the ACC to even host a conference tournament quarterfinal yet claimed prime NCAA tournament seedings based on strong RPI numbers and good conference tournament runs.

Saturday's three games to watch

Harvard at Boston University: A second consecutive first-round derby for Boston University, which pushed eventual College Cup participant Boston College to the limit last season. Coach Nancy Feldman's Terriers were 12-0-0 at home this season, including a 3-0 win against Harvard, en route to a fifth consecutive America East title.

Ohio State at No. 4 Tennessee: The Lady Vols reaped the benefits of a tough nonconference schedule to earn an NCAA tournament seed and a home game. But anyone who watched Ohio State goalkeeper Katie Baumgardner in the College Cup last season knows she's capable of fueling an upset.

Virginia Tech at West Virginia: It's a regional rivalry, if not exactly a local one. But it's also a clash of conference pride between the best the Big East has to offer and a mid-table ACC team. The Hokies have faced plenty of good offenses, but the Mountainers are No. 14 in goals per game among NCAA tournament teams.

Saturday's three players to watch

Sydney Leroux, UCLA (vs. New Mexico): After scoring eight goals in the NCAA tournament as a sophomore, Leroux had just one score in three games last season. The next few weeks could seal her place as an all-time great.

Natalie Kulla, Marquette (vs. Toledo): One of the features of this tournament is phenomenal goalkeepers, and while Kulla doesn't always get the attention some of her peers do, she's in the middle of any discussion of the best.

Rachel Tejada, Illinois State (at Milwaukee): Only two players in the country scored more goals. It just happens that one of them, Sarah Hagen, will be in the other uniform. Tejada had one of three goals in her team's 3-1 win against Milwaukee two weeks ago.

Saturday's big question: What will No. 3 Pepperdine and No. 4 Memphis show?

Both the Waves and Tigers spent much of the second half of the season in and around the top five in the major polls, but both are looking at just one home game in the NCAA tournament because of seeding. Pepperdine has the tougher matchup against Long Beach State, while Memphis takes on Tennessee-Martin, but both teams will have every opportunity to play the respect card if they come up with the kind of wins befitting their combined 36-1-2 record this season.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for Email him at Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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