NCAA Tournament – Elite Eight Preview – (1) Virginia vs (3) Michigan

(1) Virginia vs (3) Michigan – 7:00 PM

1. What Will Michigan’s Mindset Be?

Last weekend, talented Georgetown and Wake Forest teams chose pragmatism instead of playing an expansive game against a Virginia side with lethal offensive ability.  It didn’t really work for either.  The Hoyas seemed better equipped on paper to make the strategy work given their offensive talent, but they never got going and barely made a peep offensively.  Wake Forest held out for a little longer with their better defense, but the Demon Deacons have been drained offensively by injuries, with it essentially being game over when Virginia scored a couple of goals in quick succession.  I suspect Michigan could use a similar strategy away from home given their personnel.  The Wolverines have a big, skilled target forward in Nkem Ezurike, meaning they’ve got a signpost for flick-ons from long, direct balls if they need it, though they’ve also got enough offensive talent behind Ezurike to keep it on the turf on the break if Virginia opens itself up for a few chances that way.  The Wolverines also generally seem to have the defensive discipline to not be sucked out of position by UVA, and Michigan maintaining their defensive shape in front of a rookie goalkeeper is going to be big if they hope to spring the upset.  The longer they’re able to frustrate the Cavs, the better their odds of victory obviously.  An early Virginia goal would obviously change things in a hurry, and I’m not sure Michigan’s going to be able to come out on top if offense decides the day, even with Ezurike.

2. Can Virginia Handle The Power Of Ezurike Up Top?

It’s actually a little shocking that Virginia hasn’t faced that many big, talented forwards this season.  The Cavs have handled a ton of swift, pacey forwards like Jazmine Reeves, Hayley Brock, and Kealia Ohai, but the number of elite towering behemoths they’ve conquered this season is a rather short one.  In fact, it’s a little hard to argue that they’ve faced any besides Morgan Marlborough at the beginning of the season.  Of course, they did a pretty good job on Marlborough and the lethargic Santa Clara side in a dominating win.  If it’s just Ezurike against the Virginia defense, then UVA’s probably going to just swarm her with numbers and make someone else beat them.  The danger is if Ezurike is able to fight through the defense and help create opportunities for her Michigan teammates.  She’s not plodding and has a nice touch for a big forward, but Ezurike’s strength and ability to hold up the ball are probably going to be vital in Michigan’s gameplan. If Virginia’s able to take her out of the equation, it’s difficult seeing the Wolverines coming out of Charlottesville with the win.

3. A Tale of Rookie Goalkeepers

It’s not particularly common to see freshman netminders at this stage of the competition or beyond, as experience in goal is a priceless asset that most contenders share.  Not so with these two clubs, who are trotting out freshmen come Friday’s Elite Eight matchup.  Michigan had arguably the tougher task after last season, replacing the very talented Haley Kopmeyer, who had become a leading figure in the club’s charge towards being one of the Big Ten’s top clubs over the past few years.  In her place is Taylor Bucklin, a Canadian youth international who was widely tipped to make a big impact as a rookie and who has done so this season for the Wolverines.  Virginia’s been absent a standout keeper since Chantel Jones graduated a few years back, and while veteran Danielle DeLisle has featured in a handful of starts, most of the time, the Cavs have rolled with Morgan Stearns.  Stearns also came into Charlottesville with a lot of plaudits and has mostly lived up to expectations in net for the Cavs, though she also hasn’t been tested as much as some of her rivals on other clubs thanks to the team’s strong defense.  Regardless, she’s still been impressive and actually could be staring down Bucklin on the opposite side of the pitch during U20 World Cup qualifiers.  With this one potentially being a nail biter, both could be called upon to play beyond their years as their clubs pursue a spot in Cary.

4. Will Brian Continue To Run Riot?

Everyone knew that Morgan Brian was going to have to make “The Leap” if Virginia was going to contend for honors this season, such was the depth of their losses after last season.  It’s safe to she’s made it, coming into this one with a brilliant fifteen goals and fourteen assists for the Cavs, pulling the strings from the midfield.  Tellingly, Brian’s gotten better as the weather’s gotten colder, putting together a fantastic postseason thus far.  Brian comes into this one with five goals and two assists in the Cavs’ five postseason games thus far, including having scored in all three rounds of the NCAA Tournament thus far.  She’s sure to get plenty of attention from the Michigan defense, who will aim to keep her as far away from goal as possible while also trying to cut off service to the forwards.  It’ll be up to Brian to find a way through to help her club to the College Cup.  Given Brian’s postseason form thus far, it’s hard to bet against her succeeding.

5. Can Virginia Finally Get Over The Hump?

We’ve been here before.  We’ve been here before a lot with Virginia.  The Cavs have been odds on so many times to get to the College Cup from a position of strength that some may have wondered if UVA’s ever going to be able to finally break through.  Take into account last season when Virginia looked like a terror after winning the ACC Tournament, only to come out flat in the Sweet Sixteen in a shock defeat to postseason nemesis Duke.  This season, Virginia’s shown the type of consistency that’s been the hallmark of champions, rolling through everyone in their path before a big speedbump in state rivals Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament semi-finals.  UVA’s gotten right back up to dominate teams in the NCAA Tournament though and will probably be favored to walk away with the national title if they make it to Cary next weekend.  That’s far from a guarantee though, as we’re about to find out how Virginia plays when the heat is really on, with a spot in the Final Four on the line.  Michigan are no mugs, and the Wolverines have the capacity to frustrate the Cavs defensively and deliver a hammer blow or two offensively.  But I think Virginia’s finally going to bury their demons on Friday night, though it may be a more stressful ride than hoped.

Prediction – Virginia 1 – 0 Michigan

6 thoughts on “NCAA Tournament – Elite Eight Preview – (1) Virginia vs (3) Michigan

  1. Steve

    Sorry to be the only one commenting (right now) on these previews. Anyway, UVA actually played some of their best soccer of the year last Friday and Sunday, even if the scoreboard didn’t light up repeatedly. So, I think they easily advance today, by multiple goals. One positive recent factor has been the improved flank play of Alexis Shaffer, and Swanson’s willingness to give her big minutes.

    I can’t speak as to many past failures by UVA, but last year’s loss to Duke was unfortunately a function of Brian being disciplined (benched) early in the match (UVA had no confidence or intensity for the 1st half against Duke). And Cassie Pecht’s midfield defending was clutch. UVA is so far over that failure now. For one, this is now Brian’s team, and she’s providing great leadership. I see no hangover or nerves or problems for them today.

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  2. VaFan

    The teams that have given UVa the most trouble this year have been very physical — VaTech, FSU, Notre Dame — but, then again, those groups are pretty quality, too. I have not seen Michigan this year, but rumor has it they are a physical bunch, and well-disciplined, as well. Frankly, I expect to see a lot of UVa bodies go flying, especially Brian, after passes are away.
    My inclination is to believe that whoever scores first will win. If that’s Michigan, we are likely to then see a dense bunker. If it’s UVa, then Michigan will have to come out to chase. (I don’t think the Cavs have any idea how to assume a bunker position themselves.)
    Whatever happens, I hope UVa’s style of play will prove to be inspirational for teams and coaches around the college scene. You don’t have to be Spanish to learn a flowing possession style. Playing that way often results in a team that is constantly improving as the season progresses as players get reps and experience. Hoping for that today.

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  3. Soccer fan

    Do not bet on Shaffer getting but so many quality minutes if it means Norbo coming off. From what I hear, Norbo is a coach’s pet and becomes distraught when she does not get at least 20 minutes per half. Swanson has had other players he has chosen above better players in the past and it has cost the team trips to the College Cup. Hope this year is different but as I said earlier, do not bet on it.

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  4. Kara

    Agreed with the poster on Sonnett’s lack of defensive abilities. She was completely bodied off the ball after playing around with Nkem. One of the silliest giveaways ever.

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    1. VaFan

      Yes, she made a mistake. “Lack of defensive abilities?” Wow.
      Center-backs in Swanson’s system have to be more mobile and athletic and almost always smaller than your stereotypical center-back. And because 7 or 8 of their teammates are up in the attack, they tend to be exposed abnormally often.
      Come on — the ACC women’s coaches selected Sonnett as First-Team All-Conference this season, with she and Kallman as the only two defenders on the squad. She may be a bit flamboyant back there, but the coaches in the ACC like her.

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