One of the reasons I love sports is the psychology. I like observing coaches and athletes as they process and react to success or failure, either in practice or games, and watch how that then relates to future performances. There are no sweeping generalizations that can be made about how to handle a big win or a devastating loss because so much is dependent on the specific paradigm of the particular athlete, coach or collective team, but it’s still fun to watch.
I mention this because there are varying opinions on conference tournaments. (You’ll hear a lot of the same arguments about the soccer conference tournaments as you will about basketball conference tournaments come March.) Some believe that you need to get a loss out of the way before heading to the NCAA Tournament. These people also believe that an extra day’s rest is beneficial to the grind of one more tournament after a long season.
The people that say this are usually the ones that have just been eliminated.
Some view the conference tournament as a fantastic slice of what the NCAA Tournament is going to be like – a great lesson in the “survive and advance” mentality. These people also think that your team can learn important lessons without having to suffer a loss, and they want to keep the positive momentum going. Most often, these teams have just won a conference tournament title.
And some treat a conference tournament as a place to let the reserves get some work before the real tournament starts. Actually not some, but specifically, Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian. If you’re not familiar with the story, Krikorian refrained from using his first 11 in the first round of the ACC Tournament, which the Seminoles lost to eventual champion Wake Forest. Krikorian explained that he held the players out to keep them healthy and get ready for the NCAA Tournament. The Seminoles had a pair of road games against Maryland and Boston College just days before the tournament, which won’t draw too much sympathy from BIG EAST fans who are smirking about an ACC team complaining about traveling to Boston. Krikorian has since been heavily reprimanded by the league and will be suspended for FSU’s first round game in the NCAA Tournament.
There’s no question that the soccer season is overly compact. Two and even three games a week is a lot for players, and there is a case to be made for too many games and not enough skill development. Plus, several conferences already forego a tournament and simply rely on the season table to determine a champion, which is entirely fair and reasonable.
But, having said all that, every team that gathers in August has a goal to win a championship. Obviously just one team will win the national championship, but conference championships, whether it be regular season or a tournament, the America East Conference, the BIG EAST Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference, are a big deal for players (and most coaches), and should probably be treated as such.
While situations and teams are different from year to year, it’s valid to ask if teams that win a conference tournament are less likely to go on and win a national championship. In the last 10 years, the NCAA Tournament champion has won its conference tournament five times. (Notre Dame did not win the BIG EAST Tournament championship prior to its national title in 2004, and the other four times the national championship was won by teams that did not have a conference tournament.) So, we can conclude that winning a conference tournament does not appear to harm your chances in winning a national championship. There’s no reason to think that WVU has used up its magic or that it has hit its limit on goals for the season.
And that brings us to this weekend and the opening of the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers, riding a school record 12-match winning streak, will serve as the host to a four-team pod, including its Friday opponent Morehead State. Penn State will face Penn in today’s first match. West Virginia, which finished the season with an RPI rating of 10th, is seeded third in the Portland Region.
Consider this about the matchup of between the Mountaineers and Eagles: On Sept. 10, Morehead State was 1-5 and coming off a loss to USC Upstate, and West Virginia was 2-3 after a loss to Miami. Since then, though, the two teams are a combined 26-2-2.
Through its first six games, Morehead State was surrendering a staggering 2.8 goals per game. But since then, the Eagles have seven clean sheets and are giving up a much more manageable 0.7 goals per game. Morehead State is unbeaten in its last 11 contests.
Morehead State is paced by Erin Adams, who was the Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year. WVU defenders will also have to play close attention to Giuleana Lopez who has eight goals but also a team-high six assists. Lopez scored both goals in MSU’s 2-1 win over Austin Peay in the OVC tournament final. And, Sam Toepfer leads the Eagles with three game-winning goals, which I consider to be one of the most important statistical categories in soccer.
The Eagles are coached by Warren Lipka, who is in just his second season with the program. Prior to taking the job at Morehead State, Lipka was the head coach at Kentucky for 17 years before being let go by the Wildcats. He is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament with this being his eighth trip.
Friday night will be a busy night in Morgantown with a men’s and women’s basketball doubleheader being played a couple hundred yards away from Dick Dlesk Stadium, but the Mountaineers are certainly happy to be playing at home in the NCAA Tournament. WVU is 8-1-1 at home with that lone loss coming in the first game of the year (against fellow pod member Penn State, by the way).
And, going back to the psychology of athletes and how their reactions, I wonder if and/or how Blake Miller was impacted by being left off the 13-member All-BIG EAST first team. Miller, who in regular season play was second in the conference in points and goals, third in shots and ninth in assists on a team that finished 9-1-1 in the league, did nothing but torch opponents down the stretch. She then went on to have a role in all four of WVU’s goals in the conference tournament with one goal and three assists. Miller has a goal or an assist in six of West Virginia’s last seven games. Torrid play, chip on her shoulder, or both? Either way, the Mountaineers will take it and hope it continues.
Many people foolishly think that soccer is about scoring goals. In knockout play, though, soccer is often times about not allowing a goal and trying to send a game into penalty kicks. The Mountaineers will be a team that is going to try and possess and score, and have also been stout defensively. West Virginia has given up just one goal in the last six games and opponents have not scored on the Mountaineers in nearly 300 minutes. Goalkeeper Kerri Butler and her defensive mates will try to keep that scoreless streak intact and keep the Mountaineers moving forward.