The first round of the NCAA Tournament is upon us. With 16 games on Thursdays, TopDrawerSoccer breaks down the history, what to watch, and predicts all of the action from the opening round.
Home team listed first, all games on Nov. 20, all times ET
How they got here: The Zips finished as regular season and conference tournament champions after beating Bowling Green on Sunday. Ohio State earned an at-large bid after finishing second in the Big Ten during the regular season and playing one of the most difficult schedules in Division I.
Series history: Akron defeated Ohio State 3-1 on Sept. 24 in the latest meeting in this series. The Zips lead the all-time record with 28 wins, six losses, and three draws.
Players to watch: Midfielder Adam Najem is the key piece for the Zips. The New York Red Bulls prospect leads the team with 13 goals this season. He is crafty on the ball and lethal from set pieces. Ohio State will need a big game from goalkeeper Alex Ivanov. The senior had nine saves in the first meeting this season.
Winner’s bounty: The victor enjoys a trip to South Bend, Indiana to face-off against top seed Notre Dame in the second round.
Prediction: Akron has Ohio State’s number and been a bully to the Big Ten for some time now. The Zips win this one, but it’ll be close.
UNC Wilmington (12-4-2) vs. Bucknell (10-9-3), 7 p.m.
How they got here: UNC Wilmington earned an at-large bid after winning the Colonial Athletic Association regular season and finishing at No. 26 in the RPI. Bucknell won the Patriot League Championship and snagged the conference’s automatic bid with a thrilling overtime victory over Boston University.
Series history: This is the first meeting between these programs.
Players to watch: Seattle Sounders Academy graduate Jesse Klug leads Bucknell in scoring with 11 goals this season. Klug is a hard-worker who sets the tone for the group. Jacob VanCompernolle is the tone-setter for UNCW. The senior defender from Texas does a little bit of everything for the Seahawks.
Winner’s bounty: The victor from this tilt earns a trip to Charlottesville for a second round clash against Virginia.
Prediction: UNC Wilmington is a quality side and has enjoyed a really great season, but it seems like Bucknell is playing at a slightly higher level right now. The visitors sneak out of North Carolina with an overtime win.
Penn State (12-5-1) vs. Hartwick (6-9-4), 7 p.m.
How they got here: Penn State earned an at-large bid after finishing in the top 20 in the RPI. Hartwick won the Sun Belt Conference title and earned its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2005.
Series history: Hartwick leads the series history 13-10-4 with the last meeting in 2006.
Players to watch: Big Ten Player of the Year Connor Maloney is the one to watch in this match. Maloney hasn’t scored since a 1-2 loss to West Virginia on Oct. 22. This is the game for him to end that streak. Hartwick sophomore center back Kit Tregear will be one of the players looking to slow down Maloney and the Penn State attack.
Winner’s bounty: The victor earns the chance to hang out with Alex Bono and the Orange in the second round of the NCAA Tourney.
Prediction: Using the RPI to handicap the first round, this is the biggest mismatch with Hartwick checking in at No. 169 while Penn State sits at No. 19. The Nittany Lions should roll.
Old Dominion (12-6-1) vs. St. Francis Brooklyn (11-5-4), 7 p.m.
How they got here: Old Dominion beat New Mexico, Charlotte, and South Carolina on the way to win the Conference USA Championship and snagging the automatic bid to the tournament. St. Francis Brooklyn won the Northeast Conference Championship to secure the automatic berth to the tournament.
Series history: This is the first meeting between the programs.
Players to watch: Sydney Rivera is the hot name in town after he carried the Old Dominion offense through the conference tournament. Rivera is up to seven goals this season, which leads the ODU attack. St. Francis Brooklyn goalkeeper Jack Binks is the key for the visitors. The Terriers have only given up three goals during this seven-game unbeaten run.
Winner’s bounty: Getting to see Joshua Yaro play live in the next round with a meeting against Georgetown looming for the winner.
Prediction: Old Dominion is rolling through very good teams right now. St. Francis Brooklyn is no push-over, but ODU is beating the best in the land right now and hard to see the Monarchs dropping this game at home.
How they got here: Monmouth won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Xavier nabbed an at-large berth after finishing as runner-up in the Big East Championship.
Series history: This is the first meeting between these programs.
Players to watch: Eric Klenofsky has been outstanding in goal for Monmouth. He leads Division I in goals against average (0.416) and save percentage (.895). The sophomore goalkeeper has already enjoyed a stellar career with Monmouth. Redshirt senior Will Walker is the veteran leadership that Xavier will counter with in this game. Walker has played in three NCAA Tournament games previously and leads the team in points this season with 19.
Winner’s bounty: The victor earns the right to travel to the land of the Hoosiers for a second round game against Indiana.
Prediction: Xaiver has never lost an NCAA Tournament game at home. Important note: this is Xavier’s first NCAA Tournament game at home. The Musketeers are riding a nine-game unbeaten run at home. Monmouth keeps it close, but Xavier snags the win in overtime.
Oregon State (11-7-1) vs. Denver (11-7-1), 8 p.m.
How they got here: Oregon State was one of four teams from the Pac-12 to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Beavers were the only one of those teams not seeded. Denver won the Summit League tournament championship to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. This is Denver’s fourth trip to the tournament under Bobby Muuss, who is in his eighth season coaching the Pioneers.
Series history: Denver is undefeated against Oregon State with two wins in two games. The programs last met in 2006.
Players to watch: Oregon State senior forward Khiry Shelton has vastly exceeded expectations in his final collegiate campaign and is easily the player to watch in this tilt. Shelton is the key for the success of the Beavers and also the most important player to slow down for Denver. Freshman Kortne Ford leads the Pioneers in minutes played this season. The Colorado Rapids Academy alum is one of the pieces that Denver will be leaning on to help slow down Shelton and the talented Oregon State attack.
Winner’s bounty: The winner earns a date with a wizard in the next round. Elmar Bolowich and the Creighton Bluejays await the winner from this one.
Prediction: Oregon State has just a little too much punch for the Pioneers. The Beavers win 3-1 behind a brace from Shelton.
Saint Louis (13-4-2) vs. Tulsa (11-5-2), 8 p.m.
How they got here: Saint Louis earned an at-large bid to the Big Dance after battling through a successful regular season in the Atlantic 10. Tulsa snagged the automatic bid from the American Athletic Conference via winning the conference tournament.
Series history: Saint Louis leads the series 7-4 following a 1-0 win over Tulsa earlier this season.
Players to watch: It’s a tale of MLS prospects in this game as Saint Louis has one of the top target forwards in college soccer in Robert Kristo. The senior forward has 13 goals in 18 games this season. Tulsa counters with dynamic playmaker Akeil Barrett. The former Akron hit man is the catalyst of the Tulsa attack and a very dangerous weapon with the ball on his feet.
Winner’s bounty: The winner of this game gets to see the newest soccer specific stadium at the college level as Louisville awaits the victor.
Prediction: Saint Louis is 10-0 at home this season and only conceded twice in those games. The Billikens are no joke when they play at home. Saint Louis wins this one 1-0.
How they got here: Wake Forest earned its 18th trip to the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid. UMBC gained entry thanks to an automatic berth from winning the America East Conference championship.
Series history: Wake Forest won the only previous meeting 5-0 in 1989.
Players to watch: Both programs have talented players all over the field. It’s the leaders that need to step up for each team to be successful. Michael Gamble is the key for the Demon Deacons. Gamble plays as a false No. 9 for Wake Forest and the ACC program hopes that he can create for the player making runs off of him. UMBC will be counting on star center back Oumar Ballo to shut down Gamble and not let him have any time on the ball on Thursday.
Winner’s bounty: A trip to College Park, Maryland awaits the winner of the game from Winston-Salem. No. 4 seed Maryland is riding hot and eager to get into the action in the NCAA Tournament in the second round.
Prediction: These teams are very evenly matched and the home field advantage should give Wake Forest a slight advantage, but UMBC is a more seasoned squad. UMBC wins a close one on the road.
How they got here: Kentucky earned an at-large bid after a daunting schedule and impressive showing in Conference USA. This is Kentucky’s second trip to the tournament in three seasons. Oakland won the Horizon League to capture an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Series history: This is the first meeting between these programs.
Players to watch: Kentucky goalkeeper Callum Irving won every award that Conference USA handed out for this season. The star goalkeeper is just one of the quality players on Kentucky, but he is the one that shines the brightest and the one that the coaching staff can count on to erase mistakes from those in front of him. Oakland is built in a similar fashion. It is freshman goalkeeper Wes Mink, who has emerged as the star of the defense for the Golden Grizzlies and the one that the team will be counting on during the tourney.
Winner’s bounty: The No. 3 Spartans of Michigan State await the winner of this game.
Prediction: Kentucky is in a minor slump coming off back-to-back losses to enter the NCAA Tournament. Oakland is undefeated in its last four games. That said, Kentucky is tough to beat at home. The Wildcats take this one.
How they got here: UAB earned an at-large bid after compiling a 5-3 record in Conference USA and losing in the conference tournament semifinals. Furman won the Southern Conference Championship to earn the conference’s automatic bid the to the tournament. This is Furman’s first trip to the tournament since 2011.
Series history: UAB leads the series 3-2 with the last meeting in 2001.
Players to watch: Freddy Ruiz paces the UAB attack with 10 goals to his credit for the season. The junior forward is quick, good on the ball, and efficient in front of the goal. Ruiz is exceptionally good at punishing mistakes, which Furman will need to minimize to have a shot at snagging a result on the road. Senior defender Clint Ritter will be counted on to help lead that effort against the dynamic UAB attack.
Prediction: There isn’t much separating these two sides. Furman will probably try to sit back a bit and let UAB take the initiative from the get-go. Furman holds strong defensively, but comes up short in penalty kicks.
How they got here: Dartmouth won the Ivy League (via a tie-breaker) to earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Fordham put on glass slippers and danced its way through the Atlantic 10 field to capture the conference tournament and automatic berth.
Series history: This is the second meeting between the programs with Dartmouth defeating Fordham 2-0 earlier this season.
Players to watch: Fordham seems like the team of destiny. There are so many things that went right for the Rams in the conference tournament just to reach this point. Goalkeeper Sean Brailey made nine saves in the quarterfinal against VCU and stopped a penalty kick. It was the first time since 1996 that Fordham advanced out of the first round. There are so many parts to the Rams’ recent success that not one player is responsible for the team being here or the team shocking everyone and making it into the next round. As good as Fordham collectively has been, Alex Adelabu has been doing the same for Dartmouth. The senior forward is willing this team into the postseason and onto a long tournament run.
Winner’s bounty: How does a trip to Rhode Island sound? Oh. Well, that’s the prize for the winner with Providence waiting in the next round.
Prediction: Is there still some magic left in Fordham? The Rams are hoping that’s the case because Dartmouth is a very good team and the heavy favorite in this clash. It’s hard to eliminate Cinderella, but Dartmouth wins comfortably.
UC Irvine (14-5-3) vs. UNLV (14-4-3), 10 p.m.
How they got here: UNLV snagged the automatic berth from the Western Athletic Conference via the conference tourney. This is UNLV’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1988. UC Irvine was invited to the Big Dance with an at-large berth after a successful regular season.
Series history: UNLV leads the all-time series 18-5-1. UC Irvine won the earlier meeting this season 4-2.
Players to watch: The key to knocking UNLV out of the tournament is slowing down the Running Rebels’ attack. UC Irvine will be counting on Matt Tilley and the other defenders to keep Michael Breslin’s net clean on Thursday. The Rebels will lean on freshman forward Daniel Musovski to keep the postseason dream alive.
Winner’s bounty: Stanford hosts the winner in the next round.
Prediction: It’s been a long time since UC Irvine played a really good game. A long time. Perhaps, a rematch against UNLV will be the key to getting Irvine rolling again with the quality it showed earlier in the season. Count on the Anteaters finding a way to win in this one.
How they got here: Coastal Carolina won the Big South Championship to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Florida Gulf Coast won the Atlantic Sun Championship to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Series history: Florida Gulf Coast won the only previous meeting in 2007.
Players to watch: Aaron Guillen is the leader of the FGCU defense and the key piece to wishfully slowing down the Coastal Carolina attack. Guillen will need the help of his teammates to keeping Costal off the board. FGCU is at its best when it controls the possession of the ball. Coastal Carolina will be counting on Uchenna Uzo to keep FGCU off the scoreboard.
Winner’s bounty: The winner is staying in South Carolina for a game against Clemson in the second round.
Prediction: Coastal Carolina advanced to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2013. Will it be a three-peat? FGCU is a good squad, but Coastal is slightly better across the field and should be able to disrupt FGCU’s style of play.
How they got here: North Carolina was awarded an at-large bid after taking on a challenging schedule during the regular season. James Madison snuck into the tournament with a shocking Colonial Athletic Association Championship.
Series history: James Madison leads the all-time series 3-2.
Players to watch: There is a ton of talent on the North Carolina team, which almost makes it a surprise to be writing about the Tar Heels at this point. Senior defender Boyd Okwuonu does not want his college career to end at this point, so expect a big game from the FC Dallas Academy alum. On the other side, Kyle Morton has not given up a goal in his last 270 minutes in goal. The JMU goalkeeper has 11 saves over that period.
Winner’s bounty: The winner takes on Charlotte in the next round.
Prediction: Via the UNC game notes, the Tar Heels have won at least one postseason game since 2000. That’s pretty incredible. No pressure, UNC. The Tar Heels come away with a close win.
Northwestern (9-3-6) vs. SIUE (7-8-4), 5:30 p.m.
How they got here: Northwestern was awarded one of the at-large bids after a three-loss season. SIUE won the Missouri Valley Conference to earn an automatic bid to the tournament.
Series history: The programs are level at 2-2 all-time.
Players to watch: Tyler Miller has been there all season for Northwestern and he’ll be the one that the Wildcats look to during this game. The Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year is the key piece for Northwestern during this tourney run. SIUE is a surprisingly positive team in keeping possession of the ball and building from the back. If SIUE can find success with that at Northwestern, the Cougars could have a shot in this one. Matt Polster is the key piece for the visitors. He sets the tone for the MVC Champions.
Winner’s bounty: The winner gets a trip to beautiful California for a meeting against the Golden Bears on Sunday.
Prediction: Northwestern does not lose at home.
San Diego (10-5-4) vs. CSU Fullerton (10-7-6), 10 p.m., Live Video
How they got here: San Diego won the West Coast Conference in commanding fashion to earn the automatic berth. CSU Fullerton won the Big West Championship in penalty kicks over UC Irvine.
Series history: San Diego leads the all-time series 12-10-3 with the Torreros winning 3-2 in overtime in 2013.
Players to watch: Jeff Salt was magnificent in goal for Fullerton during the run to the Big West title in George Kuntz’s first season in charge of the program. The blueprint to beating San Diego is a strong defense with limited chances on set pieces. It’s going to take a team effort to accomplish that, but Salt will be called on often to keep the dream alive for the Titans. Connor Brandt has been the main weapon for San Diego this season with 20 points to his name. Fullerton needs to keep tabs on the senior midfielder.
Winner’s bounty: The winner earns a chance to knock off the Goliath of Southern California college soccer, UCLA.
Prediction: Fullerton’s run to the Big West title is rather remarkable, but San Diego is a formidable side and has too much depth for Fuller. San Diego takes this one 2-1.