Thursday Mailbag: College Championships Edition

Pittburgh's Marcus Ranii-Dropcho winds up a throw at the 2013 College Championships.
Photo by William Brotman — UltiPhotos.com

With the DIII College Championships coming up this weekend and D-I Natties now just over a week away, I’m dedicating this week’s mailbag to questions about college, the Championships, and the Callahan.

Truthfully I didn’t get enough questions about college this week to fill this mailbag, so I’m making a bunch of them up! Deal with it!

Q: How were you so wrong about your seeding predictions in the Men’s Division?

A: For context, here are my seeding predictions; here are the actual seeds.

So, first of all, I’m not great at making predictions. I think I’m a bit better at determining point spreads and thinking about which teams over/underperform in specific games. Unfortunately, you can’t put a spread on how USA Ultimate is going to inflate Oregon’s seed.

I am surprised by how much USAU seemed to weight past performance this year, giving the nod to Pittsburgh over Texas despite Texas clearly having a more clean overall season (and finishing higher in the rankings). Oregon at #4 is really just insane to me — I honestly would have preferred UNC-Wilmington get bumped all the way up to #4. Oregon’s season does not pass the eye test when it comes to getting a pool one seed.

Here are their wins over Nationals bound teams: #12 Wisconsin, #13 UC San Diego, #15 Tufts (twice). Here are their losses: #1 Colorado, #3 Texas, #6 North Carolina, #7 Texas A&M, #8 Harvard, #10 Florida State. Oregon only finished towards the top of the rankings because of a lot of blowout wins over weak teams. This is not the resume of a one seed.

My predictions had Oregon below teams they lost to that had equally good or better resumes — Harvard and Texas A&M. At least I justified that.

On the plus side, Pool D is a zany mish-mash of teams with crazy seasons. Oregon had their worst regular season in years, but you know that Dylan Freechild is coming to play in his senior season. UNC Wilmington started the season ice cold, but is perhaps the hottest team coming into the tournament after stomping out UNC at Regionals (the game wasn’t close). Florida has been way up and down, and you have to love their style of trotting out their best players on every single point. Carleton is the tournament’s most frightening four seed after they basically started their season a month late. And Rutgers is the “how the hell are they here?” team that has visions of making it to Sunday.

Despite obviously being terrible at making predictions, here is my prediction: UNC Wilmington, Carleton, and Oregon advance.

Q: Which pool is the strongest in the Men’s Division? What about the Women’s Division?

Imagine a pool filled to the brim with Regional champions, elite cutters, and experienced coaching. Well, you don’t have to imagine it: welcome to Pool A in the Men’s Division.

Colorado, Harvard, Wisconsin, and UC San Diego all won their regions. Wisconsin is dangerously underseeded compared to what you should expect next weekend. Harvard we had pegged as the number four overall seed before they were brutally knocked down to 8th because…well I’m not quite sure.

Eastern Michigan, the pool’s bottom seed, doesn’t quite fit the mold — they are a small, self-coached unit and didn’t win their region — but they are the kind of team that could pose a real challenge if they get a hint of momentum.

Every one of the teams has a truly elite cutter — Jimmy Mickle (Colorado), Jeremy Nixon (Harvard), Colin Camp (Wisconsin), Trevor Purdy (UC San Diego), and James Highsmith (EMU).

How fun are these games going to be?

***

On the women’s side, Pool C stands out as the obviously most deep and challenging pool.

Central Florida needs no introduction after a brilliant regular season. Carleton was in the finals last year. British Columbia is a very scary three seed after getting pushed down because of a Regionals upset. Northeastern ripped through everyone during the regular season. Colorado got shoved way down after Kansas stunned the South Central region, but none of their opponents can be happy about drawing them as their five seed.

UCF is clearly the favorite after the year they’ve had, but down the pool anything could happen. Northeastern and Colorado each have wins over Carleton this season. But Carleton came on late and played very well at the Northwest Challenge, getting revenge against Colorado with a big win.

UBC has wins over Colorado and Carleton, but a four point loss to UCF. Mira Donaldson is going to murk people in this pool as she has all season.

Q: Which state will have the best performance in the Men’s Division: Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Massachusetts, or Texas?

Consider this: 12 of the 20 teams at the College Championships hail from those five states. Massachusetts and Florida lead the way with three teams apiece: Harvard/Tufts/Massachusetts and Florida/Florida State/Central Florida.

So let’s first define success: should it be breaking seed? The average of the overall placement? The most teams in the Championship bracket? I think I’ll go with a bit of a hybrid of those last two: more teams making it to Sunday is a bonus, average placement is the key.

North Carolina and Texas are the obvious favorites here, with both states producing two top 8 seeds. But Florida is a bit of a darkhorse, with Michigan and Massachusetts fighting it out for underdog status.

I think good money goes on the Carolinas — both Chapel Hill and Wilmington made quarters last year, and both teams are better than they were a year ago. That might sound crazy about Wilmington, but the teams has truly come into its own in the past two months and quietly the team has high expectations for Nationals.

It is not hard to imagine the Carolina teams winning their pools outright.

Texas has a bit of a tougher situation. While TUFF could well win their pool, and will almost certainly advance to at least prequarters, A&M is in a very treacherous pool with both of last year’s finalists and a Michigan team that will match and maybe exceed them in athleticism. I would be surprised to see A&M in quarters.

Florida has more than a puncher’s chance. Every team has spent time ranked in the top five this season, which means they’ve all managed some quality wins. All three teams are super athletic and can throw a stream of solid defenders at the opposition. The teams may have some depth issues, but those may prove to be less prevalent early in the tournament. Could all three make quarters?

I’m less bullish on Massachusetts and Michigan. Harvard got stuck in a very tricky pool, and UMass and Tufts landed together in Pool C. EMU will likely struggle in Pool A. Michigan could definitely make quarters but faces scary crossover games with Pool C — they’ll really want to push to finish at least second in the pool.

I’m going to stick with the combination of experience and results and stay chalk: North Carolina wins the state battle.

Q: What is happening to UNC? Why is a team that seemed unstoppable slipping? Can they still win the title?

A: I’ve certainly noticed a bit of quiet from the UNC fans that frequent the Ultiworld comments section. Earlier this year, UNC homers were attacking me for considering that another team might have a shot at an upset over the then-#1 team. UNC backed up all the hype at the Stanford Invite, even if they did trip up once against Pitt. Then Easterns. Another loss to Pitt, then a loss to Minnesota. Defensive handler and absolutely vital contributor Ben Snell goes down with a knee injury.

They seemed to right the ship at Conferences, but then they got lit up by Wilmington in the Regional finals. More gulps.

Something to chew on: the team played 27 regular season games across four tournaments. Few teams, if any, played more games than they did. They were admittedly a bit complacent at Easterns, and played sloppy and deserved to get whipped by Pitt in the semis.

And the team has struggled to adjust to life without Snell. His return at Nationals is still questionable, and, if he does play, he almost certainly won’t be playing both ways as he did much of the year in big games. The defensive line could not convert against Wilmington at Regionals, despite having numerous break opportunities in the second half. Though Christian Johnson is the team’s Callahan nominee, and Jon Nethercutt is the flashier offensive-oriented handler, Snell was arguably their most valuable player during the season.

If he can’t play at 100% at Nationals, it is a big loss, bigger than UNC probably cares to admit.

I do think this is still a semis quality team, and they should be considered the favorite in their pool. But let’s say they do win their pool and advance to semis. They’re probably going to get Pitt — the team that knocked them out of title contention last year, the team that handed them their first loss of the season, and the team that erased their hopes of winning Easterns — in that game. What do you think will happen?

Q: So, wait a minute, if UNC isn’t the favorite any more, who is? Colorado?

A: I am still a Colorado skeptic. This is a team that got bounced in prequarters last year with similar talent. They got beat wire to wire by UNC in the quarters at Stanford. They have some glaring weaknesses that well coached teams will be able to exploit. That’s not to say Colorado isn’t a very good team, but I don’t think they are the odds-on favorite.

If I was a betting man (I am), I would put my money on a Pitt threepeat. There’s no more: can this team win without Tyler and Alex? Obviously they can, and players like Marcus Ranii-Dropcho and Max Thorne have filled roles seamlessly.

And let’s be clear: Nick Kaczmarek is the country’s best college coach. In my opinion, it’s not close. There are a lot of good coaches around the college scene right now, but Kaczmarek and his staff are on another level. Their preparation is exhaustive, and they take meticulous notes on other teams during the tournament. They film opponents’ games. They watch hours of tape. That’s why they keep winning, regardless of the personnel.

Are they susceptible to a loss this year? Certainly. They struggle to defend against height and their zone offense got exposed a bit by Michigan in the Easterns finals. But, I can assure you, they are a much better team now than they were at Easterns and they will be very hard to beat. No team has more experience in big game situations than Pitt.

Q: What are the weaknesses of the top contenders: Colorado, UNC, Pitt, Texas, Oregon, Wilmington, etc.?

A: Let’s go through them one by one.

Colorado: The Mickle effect. 

Colorado’s biggest weapon, Jimmy Mickle, may be their achilles heel as well. When defenses get tighter and put pressure on Colorado’s downfield cutters, the team tends to get stagnant and wait for Mickle to make something happen. While not always a disastrous strategy — he is the best player in college after all — it doesn’t work well against the truly elite defenses. UNC showed exactly how to beat Mamabird.

Even Jimmy Mickle gets tired, and ultimate is not basketball — you can’t put the entire team on your back. If you make it harder for him to get his touches, and you really clamp down on the rest of the Colorado offense, you’re going to get turnovers. It’s the same problem Colorado had last season, though to a lesser degree.

[youtube CBJtzEKetBM 600 337]

Pittsburgh: Too Short.

Outside of Marcus Ranii-Dropcho, who was the team’s big deep defender last season, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a lot of defensively-skilled height. They got lit up by Michigan’s Jesse Buchsbaum in the Easterns finals. While the 6’9″ Buchsbaum is a bit of an outlier, Pitt has generally struggled with elite big men. Jump balls to quality deeps are a very good option against Pitt.

They can move Ranii-Dropcho to the D line to slow down those looks, but that takes away from his ability to produce on offense.

Getting back 6’0″ captain Aaron Watson will help, but it’s still a spot of concern for the defending champs.

North Carolina: Wind and Deep Defense.

For the last two years, UNC has not seemed to be able to figure out two things: how to excel in the wind, and how to shut down the other team’s deep game. It’s not that they don’t have the talent to handle those problems — they have elite handlers with a multitude of throws, and they have plenty of tall, experienced athletes.

But they can’t seem to put it all together. Windy days bring zone defenses which seem to bring out poor decision making and weird execution mistakes from the UNC offensive line. See: Stanford Invite.

While they are capable of playing good deep defense, they seem to just forget to follow a cutter sometimes or, if they adjust, they start getting smoked on the unders. Better team defense would seem to be the trick here, and the team knows they have a problem. It’s not that they’re getting skied — they’re giving up three steps to good cutters. That spells disaster.

Texas: Rigidity.

The Texas offensive system has been the same for over a decade. The team is always good, but rarely great. They are the picture of consistency, but not excellence.

The team has made it to 10 of the last 12 Nationals. They have just one semifinals appearance in that run: 2009. They haven’t reached the finals since 1988.

Hey, maybe this is the year they break through. They come in with the three seed and have a good case for the two. They have one of the country’s very best players in Will Driscoll, and a team stacked with absurd height and athleticism.

But it just seems to easy to predict their gameplan, and the play designs never seem to change to adjust to the personnel. The hallmark of their consistency — sticking to the system — also seems to hold them back from breaking through into greatness.

OregonPreparation.

The jury is still out on this year’s Oregon team, but it’s possible their window to win a title has slipped away. They were extremely talented last year, with Callahan winner Dylan Freechild, Aaron Honn, and Camden Allison-Hall wreaking havoc all season. Again, they lost in the semis after a remarkable regular season.

A particular moment stands out to me. At the College Championships last year, one of Ultiworld’s reporters asked coach Jay Janin about another team — I think it was Pittsburgh — and wondered what he’d noticed about them on film. He said he hadn’t watched any film.

Maybe that’s why Oregon dominated the regular season but couldn’t come up with the wins when they needed them most. The team also seems to struggle a bit mentally in the big pressure situations — Freechild was outclassed by Tyler Degirolamo in last year’s semis.

UNC WilmingtonConsistency.

Hot and cold, hot and cold. That’s been the story of this year’s Wilmington team, which has put together some amazing performances (like their 15-6 win over Florida at Easterns and their 15-10 win over North Carolina at Regionals) but also some stinkers (like their 15-8 loss to Massachusetts at EQ and their 12-9 loss to Central Florida at Easterns).

When they’re on, they’re on. As evidenced by what they did to UNC, they can just put the hurt on any team. Their offense can be ruthlessly efficient: they didn’t get broken in the AC Regional Finals.

But they’re just as liable to put forth a lackluster effort.

It’s not so stark as to be a question of “which team will show up” to the tournament — they often flip the switch off and on at any given tournament. Will they have the on switch flipped when it counts at Nationals?

***

As always, hit me with questions on email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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