November 20, 2014

Getting to know the 2014 men's Sweet 16

By Christan Shirk

Some are familiar faces; some are new and surprising faces, and some are back after a long and even longer absences. And others are not unknowns nor established Sweet 16 regulars. Let's get to know the men's teams that make up this year's Sweet 16.

Who has Sweet 16 experience and how much?  Who are the first-timers?

Cortland State is in the Sweet 16
Cortland State are into the Sweet 16 for the first time in 21 years.

Just like last year, eight of this year’s Sweet 16 participants are repeats from the previous year.  Amherst has reached Sectionals for the fifth straight year meaning their players know nothing less. Brandeis, Loras, Trinity (Tx.), and Messiah are here for the third year in a row.  Franklin & Marshall, Kenyon, and Wartburg are back for a second straight year. These teams will certainly not be over-awed and will not be happy just to be here. Other teams with players who have previously reached the Sweet 16 stage of the tournament include Wheaton (Ill.), who advanced to the Elite 8 two years ago, and Oneonta State and Ohio Wesleyan whose seniors were freshman when they both made runs to the 2011 Final Four where Ohio Wesleyan won the championship. The latter two teams will also not consider the Sweet 16 a destination, but merely a milestone on the path back to the Final Four. And Wheaton will be looking to send off their out-going coach with a Final Four run just as they gave legendary coach Joe Bean a Final Four retirement party eight years ago.  Players for Cortland State, Tufts, Muhlenberg, Whitworth, and Christopher Newport have never tasted the Sweet 16, and it will be interesting to see how they respond on the bigger stage.  

None of the sixteen programs are making their Sweet 16 debut, but it has been two decades since two of them have been this deep in the tournament. Tufts’ one and only Sweet 16—en route to an Elite 8 finish—came 20 years ago in their first and most successful of three previous NCAA appearances. It’s been one year longer—21 years—since Cortland State was last here in 1993 when they reached the Sweet 16 for the ninth time in 18 years. Cortland was a national force during the first decade of the Division III tournament, reaching the quarterfinals in six of seven years from 1976 to 1982, thrice finishing in the Final Four. Muhlenberg is just four years removed from their last third round dance a year before the current seniors began their collegiate careers and Whitworth and Christopher Newport were Elite 8 teams five seasons ago. Muhlenberg and Christopher Newport have gotten back to this stage under the guidance of the same coach, while Whitworth’s coach is completing just his second season at the helm.

Two teams from last year’s Final Four (and the one before that)—Messiah and Loras—have reached sectionals, with the other two, runner-up Rutgers-Camden and Williams, failing to even qualify or be selected for the tournament. It’s been the Sweet 16 games that have troubled defending champion Messiah most at Sectionals the past two years (PK’s vs. rival York in 2012, stifled by Kenyon in late 2-1 win last year) before more comfortable wins the following day. Except for the 2-0 dispatching of last year’s Cinderella, Westminster (Mo.), in the third round, Loras has used 2-1 victories to advance through their Sectionals. The only other players with experience advancing to the Final Four are from Ohio Wesleyan and Oneonta State. Ohio Wesleyan’s then-freshman Colton Bloecher collected a goal and an assist in their Sectionals wins in 2011. Another freshman starter and solid contributor that year was Oneonta’s Justin Rivera who tallied a sudden-victory, 2OT game-winner in their Sweet 16 encounter with St. Lawrence.

Amherst’s talented squads of the past two seasons looked Final Four-bound, but both times were tripped up in the quarterfinals by their nemesis Williams whom they had gotten the better of twice previously in each of those seasons. The Lord Jeffs posted 2-1 wins in their Sweet 16 matches both years while being on the reverse end of the same scoreline in their third round match three years ago. Trinity (Tx.) and Franklin and Marshall have six starters back from their squads that won Sweet 16 games last year before bowing out in the quarterfinals. Similarly, Wheaton (Ill.) has five to six starters back from the team that won at this stage two years ago but fell short of making the Final Four.

In total, ten of this year’s Sweet 16 teams do not have any experience winning at this stage or beyond with their current players. Of the six that do, five (Franklin & Marshall, Amherst, Loras, Trinity, and Messiah) did so just last year, while Wheaton’s Sweet 16 win came two years ago. Of that group of six, only Loras and Messiah have experience reaching the Final Four with current players, both teams doing so the last two years. Messiah, of course, won it all both those years while Loras has yet to reach a national final.

How did they punch their tickets to the big dance?

Wartburg advances to Sweet 16
Wartburg is back in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.

How many of the Sweet 16 punched their own ticket with an AQ-winning conference championship? How many had to wait for the committtee’s invite? Let’s have a look.

AQ via Regular Season (1): Whitworth (NWC)

AQ via Conference Tournament (8): Christopher Newport (CAC), Kenyon (NCAC), Messiah (Commonwealth), Muhlenberg (Centennial), Oneonta State (SUNYAC), Trinity (Texas) (SCAC), Wartburg (IIAC), Wheaton (Ill.) (CCIW)

At-large Pool C Berth (7): Amherst (NESCAC), Brandeis (UAA), Cortland State (SUNYAC), Franklin & Marshall (Centennial), Loras (IIAC), Ohio Wesleyan (NCAC), Tufts (NESCAC)

This breakdown is similar to the past two years with one more automatic qualifier and one less at-large berth. It’s noteworthy that of the conferences represented by the seven Pool C teams, four (Centennial, IIAC, NCAC, and SUNYAC) also have their conference champion (and automatic berth winner) in the Sweet 16.

Top tier teams or teams on a hot streak?  Heavyweights or Cinderellas?

What about regular season finish?  Do the sixteen teams really represent the best of their respective conferences?  All but one team finished first or second in their conference standings: nine finished first, six were runners-up. Of the six to finish in second, five played second fiddle to another team to reach the Sweet 16. 

1st Place in Regular Season Standings (9): Franklin & Marshall (Centennial), Loras (IIAC), Messiah (Commonwealth), Ohio Wesleyan (NCAC), Oneonta State (SUNYAC), Trinity (Texas) (SCAC), Tufts (NESCAC), Wheaton (CCIW), Whitworth (NWC)

2nd Place (6): Amherst (NESCAC), Brandeis (UAA), Cortland State (SUNYAC), Kenyon (NCAC), Muhlenberg (Centennial), Wartburg (IIAC)

5th Place (1): Christopher Newport (CAC)

Four of the teams that didn’t place first in their conference regular season went on to win their conference tournament. Thus, thirteen Sweet 16 teams can claim to be the best from their conference. Of the other three: Cortland State was a close second to Oneonta State in the SUNYAC regular season and tournament; Amherst could make a strong case for being the NESCAC’s best for having the best combined regular season and tournament finish; and Brandeis was generally considered the UAA’s best by the various polls and rankings.

None of these teams are here merely because they caught fire at just the right time. Additionally, there are no lower-tier conferences represented, nor any upstarts or out-of-the-blue teams in the group. In other words, there are no Cinderellas based on this season or history. This is a very solid, balanced Sweet 16. Yes, there are teams that will still be considered favorites, but there’s probably much less consensus than usual over who those teams are and it would be no big surprise for any of these teams to reach the Final Four besides perhaps Cortland State who would need to eliminate Messiah and then the Tufts/Muhlenberg winner.

Conferences and multiple at-large berths: validated or not?

The UAA typically receives three to four at-large berths; the NESCAC two to three (last year’s two and one at-large berths, respectively, being exceptions to the rule). No other conferences regularly receive multiple at-large berths. This year the UAA had four participants (three at-large berths in addition to their automatic berth) and the NESCAC three. However, three other conferences also had three representatives in the tournament: Centennial, NEWMAC, and SUNYAC. Historically, the Centennial is probably closest behind the UAA and NESCAC in number of berths received. The SUNYAC’s strongest days came before the expanded tournament field increased the number of at-large berths beyond just five or so total. And the NEWMAC is not traditionally thought of as being among the top tier of strong/deep conferences. So, how did these conferences perform? In hind-sight, were the extra selections justified? You decide.

Centennial Conference: Muhlenberg (AQ), Franklin & Marshall, Dickinson

The Centennial’s top regular season team, Franklin & Marshall, and tournament champion, Muhlenberg, have reached the Sweet 16, even if just barely, both advancing from the second round by virtue of penalty shootout wins. Both took care of first round business against lower tier conference champions, though Franklin & Marshall was expected to have an much easier time of it that they did. Given their resumes, the Sweet 16 was expected of both and this they managed even if their performances were less than convincing at times. Dickinson was a questionable at-large selection given their five losses and lack of a signature win; however, when paying at their best, advancement to Sectionals was not beyond them. Unfortunately for them, the first hurdle was the NESCAC regular season winner, Tufts, and they were second best in a 2-1 loss that confirmed their status as a borderline tournament team without indicting their selection. The conference didn’t really impress, but also didn’t flop.

New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC): Bowdoin (AQ), Amherst, Tufts

It was a shock to NESCAC fans when the conference received a mere one at-large berth last year after growing accustomed to two or three berths most years since the tournament field was expanded in 2005. Increased parity in the NESCAC and a top-heavy CCC combined to conspire against the NESCAC and some thought this year could be a repeat with the NEWMAC taking the CCC’s place as “thief”. But the worry was for naught as regular season first-place finisher, Tufts, got an invite despite crashing out of the conference tournament to the #8 seed. Bowdoin put together a nice tournament run to grab the automatic berth, and it takes a formidable team to do that in the NESCAC. However, Amherst was still expected to be the standard bearer for the NESCAC with high hopes for Tufts if they could play to their potential. And the conference has performed more or less as expected. Amherst was handed the biggest test and snuck by St. Lawrence on PK’s despite arguably being second best. Tufts wasn’t handed a cake walk, but neither did they get a team of St. Lawrence’s pedigree, and they handed their pair of solid opponents quite well. Only Bowdoin couldn’t find their way through, but they made Brandeis, a Top 10 team, work hard for their spot in the Sweet 16. There is no question the NESCAC deserved their three places on the dance card.

New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC): Babson (AQ), Wheaton (Mass.), Coast Guard

Like the CCC last year, the NEWMAC was the target of much suspicion as many believed their top three built their resumes preying on opponents that were weaker then the questionable NCAA strength of schedule (SOS) formula was indicating to the selection committee. While the three certainly believed they could prove the doubters wrong, the results suggest the skeptics had reason. Babson and Coast Guard went one-and-out, Coast Guard with barely a whimper against a Catholic side whose 5 loses and 5 ties kept them from being on anybody’s radar. The bracketing did Babson no favors and they fell 2-0 to Rutgers-Newark while Wheaton (Mass.), probably best equipped of the three to make a tournament run, got the easier first round draw. After coasting to a 5-0 win, a NEWMAC-NESCAC clash with Tufts awaited them in round two. A positive result was essential to justify the NEWMAC receiving as many berths as the NESCAC, but despite an improved second half effort, Wheaton was second best to Tufts whose 80th minute insurance goal settled matters 2-0. Though analysis suggests that the NEWMAC teams weren’t on the at-large bubble, teams who felt snubbed by the committee will certainly look at the results and feel they could have done better and deserved that chance. 

State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC): Oneonta St. (AQ), Cortland St., Brockport St.

Brockport, with their nine blemishes, had a nervous wait to see if the men’s committee would extend their seasons another week with an at-large invite while Cortland was a sure thing to join Oneonta in the dance. Eyes of disappointed bubble teams would be on the likes of Brockport who barely managed to win half their games. To open the tournament, they were paired with the third best entrant from the NESCAC, Bowdoin, a team who also had nine blemishes in the form of six losses and three ties—the reverse combination from Brockport’s. The game would play out in a manner consistent with Brockport’s season, tied 2-2 at the end of regulation for the fourth time and headed to overtime for an incredible eleventh time! After twice opening and conceding 1-goal leads, they were afforded no chance to reply when Bowdoin tallied in overtime when a deflected shot fell right back to the shooter’s feet for a second try. Cortland rolled Neumann 3-0 in the first round and then jumped ahead of Rutgers-Newark 2-0 in the first half and weathered Newark’s second half push for the 2-1 win. Finally, despite dominating, Oneonta left it late to dispatch Nichols 2-0 following their first round bye. Overall, a good showing by the SUNYAC getting their top two into the Sweet 16 without too much difficulty. And Brockport’s first round loss didn’t invalidate their inclusion (at-large snubs were certainly finding better evidence elsewhere to bolster their complaints), but it did temper suggestions that the SUNYAC may be one of the top few conferences in the nation this season.

Brandies reach Sweet 16
Three straight Sweet 16's for Brandeis—the only UAA program to have ever done so—harkens back to another era that saw the Judges among the last sixteen standing three years in a row (1979-1981).

University Athletic Association (UAA):  Chicago (AQ), Brandeis, Emory, Rochester

As usual, the UAA had the most participants in the tournament with four, up one from a year ago, but also less than the five they sometimes get in. Widely considered to be one of the top two or three conferences, their lack of deep tournament runs (only three Elite 8 appearances in the past sixteen years) despite having the most participants has fans questioning the true strength of the conference and the number of invites they get. The bump back to four berths this year was due to Chicago surprisingly going undefeated in conference play to claim the title after previously picking up five non-conference losses. That incongruity made it difficult to establish expectations for Chicago, while expectations were highest for Brandeis. The Judges looked the part in first easing past Husson and then having the clear upper hand against a valiant Bowdoin in the 1-0 second round win. Emory, ranked Top 25 all season, disappointed when matched by 6-loss Berry, the SAA’s fifth place team, in a 2-1 overtime first round exit. Rochester, with their five losses, had proponents and detractors when sitting on the at-large bubble, but they overwhelmed Salisbury, a two-loss bubble team whose at-large selection was among the more criticized, with a four-goal second half outburst,  That set up a match with the highly ranked pod host Franklin & Marshall, who until a week earlier has been undefeated. The two battled back and forth as equals for 110 minutes with nothing to separate them on the scoreboard or the stat sheet and PK’s cruelly gave Rochester their marching orders. Chicago won their first round match as expected, but fell 2-0 to Wartburg in a competitive game that they seemed on the verge of tying 1-1 for much of the second half. Despite Emory’s underachievement, it’s hard to criticize the conference holding four tournament berths given how well Chicago and Rochester battled in tough second round matches. Nevertheless, Brandeis is the only representative in the Sweet 16 which reinforces the idea that the conference is full of good teams while rarely having top tier teams.

The Sweet 16 versus the Top 25 Rankings

How well did the D3soccer.com Men’s Top 25 panel do ranking teams this season? How did the coaches (NSCAA) do with their rankings? Certainly tournament results are not the best measure of the rankings as upsets do happen and bracketing can force top teams into early encounters. But for fun and curiosity, let’s see how the two rankings stack up to the Sweet 16.

First off, there were six differences between who was ranked (regardless of position): D3soccer ranked Wheaton (Mass.), Luther, Tufts, Colorado Col., Salisbury, and Cortland St., two of whcih remain alive, while the NSCAA ranked Chicago, Stevens, John Carroll, Gustavus Adolphus, Pomona-Pitzer, and RPI, none of which will be playing this weekend. The two rankings agreed on nine of the Top 10 teams, with D3soccer opting to include Franklin & Marshall while the NSCAA favored St. Lawrence. Looking at teams’ positions, of the teams appearing in both rankings the biggest differences were that D3soocer rated Franklin and Marshall (No. 10 vs. 15) and Montclair State (No. 14 vs. 18) somewhat higher than the NSCAA, and the NSCAA rated Wartburg (No. 16 vs. 24) and Emory (No. 11 vs. 17) significantly higher than D3soccer.

Twenty-three teams ranked in the D3soccer.com Top 25 made the tournament versus twenty-two from the NSCAA poll, the difference courtesy of the committee’s snub of John Carroll. D3soccer.com No. 19 Luther and No. 22 Colorado Col. did not dance, while the NSCAA No. 21 John Carroll, No. 24 Pomona-Pitzer, and No. 25 RPI did not earn or receive a berth. The brackets created one head-to-head first round match-up for teams ranked by the NSCAA and none for the D3soccer.com ranked teams, however, as many as seven second round clashes of ranked teams were possible for both polls. So who’s ranked teams showed better in the first weekend of the tournament?

All sixteen of the Sweet 16 teams were ranked by D3soccer.com and fourteen were ranked by in the NSCAA national poll. These high numbers are reflective of a lack of upsets and surprises in the early rounds of the tournament. The difference was that NSCAA ranked teams had the misfortune of playing each other six times while D3soccer.com ranked teams only ran into each other three times. The Sweet 16 teams not ranked by the NSCAA (nor receiving votes) are Tufts and Cortland St. who D3soccer.com had ranked No. 20 and 25, respectively.

Thirteen of the D3soccer.com top sixteen are still alive and two of the three to have gone home were eliminated on penalty kicks after tying another team in the top sixteen spots. Only No. 14 Montclair St. was beaten by a team outside the top sixteen (an unranked Stevens). It’s a similar story for the NSCAA which also saw thirteen of their top sixteen ranked teams advance past the opening weekend and had the same two teams eliminated on PK’s by other top ranked teams. No. 11 Emory fell to an unranked Berry.

D3soccer.com ranked teams went 14-4-2 (.750) in the first round with no head-to-head matches between ranked teams. Meanwhile, the NSCAA ranked teams did a little better at 14-3-1 (.806), but with one head-to-head matches which when removed results in an even better record of 13-2-1 (.844). The difference was that D3soccer.com had one-and-done Salisbury ranked and Montclair State’s loss was to Stevens, ranked by the NSCAA and unranked by D3soccer.com. This gave both polls sixteen ranked teams advancing to the second round to join the three ranked teams with first round byes. In the second round, the D3soccer Top 25 went 11-1-7 (.763), slightly better than the NSCAA Top 25 which posted a 9-3-7 (.658) mark. Of course, the NSCAA had two more matches featuring a pair of ranked teams. If we remove those results, the D3soccer ranked teams were 10-0-3 (.885) against unranked teams in round two while the NSCAA Top 25 went 6-0-3 (.833) against their unranked opposition; that is, no losses to unranked foes for either poll’s ranked teams. In the Top 25 head-to-head matches, the higher ranked teams went 0-1-2 in the D3soccer.com rankings and 3-0-2 in the NSCAA rankings. That last comparison could be taken to suggest that the NSCAA ordered their ranked teams better or could imply that they ranked some teams that shouldn’t have been ranked.

Combining the two rounds, the D3soccer Top 25 went 23-4-5 (.797) against unranked opponents; the NSCAA Top 25 went 19-2-4 (.840). If we add to that total the matches between ranked teams, we can say that the higher ranked teams went 23-5-7 (.757) for D3soccer.com and 22-3-6 (.806) for the NSCAA. If we only look at the Top 10 teams from each rankings, D3soccer’s top picks posted the same 12-0-5 mark that NSCAA favorites did.


Comments or feedback for the author?  Email Christan Shirk.



CHRISTAN SHIRK

Christan Shirk

 

Christan Shirk is a Messiah College graduate (1993, Civil Engineering) and has been a keen and passionate observer of D-III soccer for over a decade and a half. Never more than a rec-league player himself, Chris brings an analytical approach and nationwide perspective to D3soccer.com. He loves D-III soccer history, statistical number-crunching, and off-the-radar action, all of which he gladly shares with his readers when he's able to find time to write. [see full bio]

Questions or comments?

»  E-mail Christan Shirk
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Nov 9: Men's at-large berth analysis and predictions
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