Burning questions for the bracket

Three months ago, Louisville -- which came close to winning an NCAA title last year -- seemed a very solid choice as the preseason pick for the top men's soccer team in Division I.

Akron, which beat the Cardinals 1-0 in the 2010 championship game, was No. 2. Although that seemed to be expecting quite a lot from the Zips considering their heavy losses to graduation and the MLS draft.

And North Carolina was ranked third, although the Tar Heels had lost longtime coach Elmar Bolowich to Creighton.

Monday, as the 48-team NCAA tournament bracket was revealed, it was the ACC champion Tar Heels (17-2-2) who ended up with the top overall seed. Louisville, which struggled navigating a difficult schedule, was the No. 12 seed (12-6-2). And Akron (13-3-4), a team that knew full well it had far less margin for error this year after so much talent had departed, is unseeded.

"I don't think anybody sees us as the favorite, but they're not going to count us out, either," Akron coach Caleb Porter said. "We're in a good spot mentally; the pressure maybe isn't what it has been the past two years.

"If we don't play well, we're vulnerable. There are probably 10 to 15 teams that are capable of winning this thing. I'd like to think we're one of them, although we may have to get there on the road."

Akron will be at home for the first round, against Northwestern. The winner of that matchup travels to Dallas to take on No. 6 seed SMU. The Zips are coming off the Mid-America Conference tournament at Akron in which they lost to Western Michigan on penalty kicks (4-3) after a 1-1 tie.

The College Cup will be held Dec. 9-11 at Regions Field in Hoover, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham. The Tar Heels are trying to make it to the Final Four for the fourth consecutive season; UNC lost to Maryland in the 2008 title game and fell in the semifinals each of the past two years.

North Carolina is on a six-match winning streak for coach Carlos Somoano, who previously was Bolowich's assistant. Forward Billy Shuler, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, led the way in goals (14) for the Tar Heels this year, while fellow junior Enzo Martinez had a team-high 10 assists.

North Carolina is looking to win the championship 10 years after the program's first NCAA title, when the Tar Heels downed Indiana in the 2001 final. The Tar Heels could meet the No. 16 seed Hoosiers in the third round this year.

Taking a look at the bracket overall, if you were to pick a toughest quarter, it might be that involving No. 4 seed Boston College, No. 5 Maryland, No. 12 Louisville and No. 13 UCLA.

Here are five burning questions headed into the NCAA tournament:

1. Can the Big East win another title?

It doesn't really make up for all the bad news this league has had this year, but it is at least a positive: The Big East led all conferences in men's soccer NCAA bids, with seven. The league had the most teams in last year's field, too. But can the Big East get its first title from a member school since Connecticut won in 2000?

That was the Huskies' second national championship; the first was in 1981. Only one other Big East school has won the NCAA crown in men's soccer: St. John's in 1996.

At No. 3, Connecticut is the top seed among the league's schools, despite not winning the Big East tournament. UConn, which started the season 11-0, tied Notre Dame on Oct. 8. The Huskies won two more matches before suffering their first loss of the season, 2-0 at West Virginia. After that, UConn finished 4-2-1, with a 1-0 overtime loss Sunday in the Big East tournament title game to St. John's.

The Huskies were very disappointed a year ago to be knocked out of the tournament in the second round by Brown. That ended the stellar career of Josh Ford, who finished as UConn's all-time leader in victories by a goalkeeper (54). Stepping into the nets this season was freshman Andre Blake, who has allowed eight goals and made 75 saves.

"The type of guys we have, they learn better from this than if we win," UConn coach Ray Reid said after the difficult loss to St. John's. "I said to our assistants, 'This is perfect for us.' We'll have their attention for the next week; we'll hopefully make improvements. Unfortunately, our guys only learn when they touch the hot stove."

Whether that's spin or not, it's not an uncommon way for Reid to motivate his players: by challenging them via remarks to the media. We'll see if it works.

Other seeded teams from the Big East are No. 7 South Florida, No. 9 St. John's and No. 12 Louisville.

2. Will the host league be represented in the College Cup?

You think of Birmingham as SEC country -- that league's headquarters are located in that city -- but UAB is actually the men's College Cup host. The SEC does not sanction men's varsity soccer as a league.

South Carolina and Kentucky, in the SEC for all other sports, play men's soccer in Conference USA; the Gamecocks are one of four teams from the C-USA that are in the NCAA tournament field.

Leading the way is No. 6 seed SMU, which won the C-USA tournament and has been to the College Cup twice. South Carolina and UAB, the league's regular-season co-champions, and Central Florida were all selected as at-large teams.

3. Will Creighton win it all for the first time?

Bolowich's move to Omaha, Neb., after 22 years and one NCAA title in Chapel Hill, N.C., has worked out fine for both Creighton and North Carolina. In fact, if seeds hold all the way to the end, his new school would go against his old for the NCAA title. That would be a first for the No. 2-seeded Blue Jays, who have made three previous trips to the College Cup.

Creighton, 18-2, suffered its only losses this season at Maryland and at Missouri State, both by 1-0 scores. Creighton avenged the latter defeat by beating the Bears 1-0 Sunday for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title.

Ethan Finlay leads the Bluejays with 11 goals this year. Creighton's keeper, Brian Holt, has surrendered just four goals in 2011 and started the season with eight consecutive shutouts. The Bluejays, an excellent defensive team, will play the winner of Western Illinois versus Northern
Illinois in the second round Sunday at Morrison Stadium in Omaha.

"Creighton is extremely good at home," said New Mexico coach Jeremy Fishbein, whose Lobos lost 4-1 to the Bluejays at Morrison in the NCAA tournament's first round last year. "It's a synthetic field; it's going to be cold. You don't want to have to go play at Creighton."

4. Are the Lobos underestimated?

However … the Lobos just might have to return to Omaha this year; they're in Creighton's quarter of the bracket. At 17-0-3, New Mexico is the lone unbeaten team in the field, yet is seeded only No. 10. The Lobos are unhappy about that -- and it's hard to blame them -- but they still get a first-round bye and will be at home for their second-round game against the winner of Georgia State-Duke.

The Blue Devils are definitely dangerous, led by the ACC's top goal scorer this season, Andrew Wenger (17). But don't write off Georgia State, one of four programs making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. The others are Florida Gulf Coast, Elon and Cal Bakersfield, and the Roadrunners have something to do with New Mexico's NCAA seed.

The Lobos' most recent tie came against Cal State Bakersfield in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship game Sunday in Denver. The Lobos won the title 3-1 on penalty kicks, but didn't score a goal in the game. They got the 1-1 tie thanks to an own goal by the Roadrunners with just over 5 minutes left. After that crushing loss, Bakersfield may have thought it had lost its chance to get into the tournament, but the Road Runners were one of 26 at-large selections.

New Mexico has made it as far as the NCAA title game before, losing to Maryland in 2005. The Lobos were hoping to be in the mix to be a good enough seed to have two potential games at home, but now will need a second-round upset for that to happen -- along with winning their own opener, of course.

The Lobos can look to Michigan for inspiration; the Wolverines made the College Cup last year as a No. 10 seed, playing two NCAA tournament matches on the road to get there.

"Who holds 'home court' could be one of the deciding factors as to who gets to the Final Four," Fishbein said.

5. Can the ACC double-dip?

Maryland doesn't need any reminders about hanging on to home-field advantage. The Terps were one of Michigan's upset victims last year, falling in the Elite Eight 3-2 in double overtime at Maryland's Ludwig Field.

That loss so stung for Terps standout Casey Townsend that it was one of the big reasons why he returned for his senior season at Maryland rather than turn pro. Townsend had 13 goals this year, second on the team to John Stertzer's 14.

The No. 5-seeded Terps are one of six ACC teams in the field, along with No. 1 North Carolina, No. 4 Boston College and unseeded Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia. Might the ACC get at least two teams to the College Cup? ACC teams have won four of the last six NCAA men's soccer titles.

UNC, Maryland, Boston College and Virginia are all on the same half of the bracket; in fact, the latter three are in the same quarter. BC defeated Maryland and Duke in the ACC tournament before falling in the championship game to the Tar Heels.

"Their team has new players in the lineup this season, but there are also a lot of similarities," said Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski of the Tar Heels. "Carlos has been there a long time, so there wasn't a huge philosophical change. Having Billy Schuler back for them has been very important as a difference-maker."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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