The Underdogs: 2014 College Championships Preview (Men’s)

Eastern Michigan's James Highsmith with the huge sky grab.Every year, College Championships bound teams, regardless of their seeding or regular season results, say the same thing. “We’re not just happy to be there.” “We’re gonna surprise some people.” “Watch out for us.”

Of course. What team would openly acknowledge they’re probably going to lose a lot of games?

Regardless, most of the bottom seeds are slotted there for a reason and few are likely to truly surprise the field. In the past two years, only two of the sixteen #4 or #5 seeds even made prequarters; none came close to winning the pool. Due to some wonkier regular season results, things might be a bit more volatile this year, but the majority of four and five seeds will be what they always are: big underdogs.

Below, we dig into the profiles of the tournament’s five long shots.

Tufts (23-9)

Key Wins: Texas A&M, Florida State, Central Florida, Dartmouth, Eastern Michigan
Key Losses: Pittsburgh, Oregon, Harvard, Central Florida, Florida State

All things considered, Tufts has had a quiet, unremarkable season. They’re probably happy with that after a 2013 season in which expectations were sky-high after a semis appearance at the Stanford Invite followed by a brutal defeat in the game-to-go at Regionals at the hands of Dartmouth.

This year, they exacted some semblence of revenge by beating Dartmouth in the 2nd place game at Regionals 15-7. That game — which mattered only for Nationals seeding — came after another New England classic vs. Harvard in the finals; they lost 14-13.

That score line shows the potential of this Tufts team — they are no pushover as a four seed, and some early season wins over quality teams shows that they have the capability to hang with teams seeded above them in their pool.

Tufts, indeed, is a bit of an outlier on this list — playing Harvard to within one in a hard-fought Regional final shows just how thin the margin is between this year’s 8 and 15 seeds. They have some excellent top-end talent in Carter Thallon, Tyler Chan, and Callahan nominee Gene Buonaccorsi. They play typical Tufts ultimate: very consistent, fundamentally sound, and eager to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes.

Their problem this season is a lack of depth and game-changing athleticism. While they have plenty of high-skill throwers, they have trouble stopping big, powerful athletes. And the team is not running deep lines, like in years past.

Their best performance against top level competition came at a very, very windy Stanford Invite; at the earlier Warm Up, they struggled against Nationals qualifiers.

POOL ANALYSIS

Tufts will face Texas, North Carolina, Florida State, and Massachusetts in pool play. In some ways, it’s tough to imagine a tougher draw for the EMen.

All four teams are notably athletic and will have a bevy of players to throw at Tufts’ top playmakers. It may be tough for Tufts to find ways to slow the opposition’s offense as well. Of the four teams, Tufts has only played Florida State; they split their two games this season with FSU winning at Warm Up and then Tufts winning at Stanford.

Tufts will need to put together a game plan to deal with players like Will Driscoll (Texas), Christian Johnson (UNC), and Jeff Babbitt (Massachusetts). They don’t have individual defenders capable of really slowing down those elite deeps on their own. Chan is a very good defender, but at 5’10” would have trouble against those taller matchups.

Can Tufts pull off an upset? Surely. They are the kind of team against which you cannot afford to have an “off” game. But they are not well equipped to match up defensively with their pool opponents, and will probably struggle to generate breaks and, by extension, wins.

Eastern Michigan (27-5)

Key Wins: Northwestern, Northern Iowa
Key Losses: Michigan, Tufts, Minnesota-Duluth

Eastern Michigan has faced Nationals-bound competition three times this season: Michigan (once at Conferences, once at Regionals) and Tufts. They are 0-3.

That highlights two things about the EMU Hellfish this season: outside expectations are low, and they are coming in as an unknown quantity.

Here’s what we do know about Eastern Michigan: they run a tight rotation on what will be maybe the smallest squad in Cincinnati. They have a pair of players that would make any starting line in the country. And they have fought very hard for two years to get here.

Those are all qualities that could make EMU a perfect Cinderella candidate: a team that could win a game or two, maybe stir things up and serve another team a very bad day. While they won’t have anywhere near the legs needed to make a run even to quarters, they have the personnel to make Friday and Saturday interesting. The problem for them is that they find themselves at the bottom of a very deep Pool A.

James Highsmith and Johnny Bansfield, who both dominated the playing field at Regionals, will surely look forward to the challenge. The duo carried the team past Northwestern in the game-to-go at Great Lakes Regionals and will be in the crosshairs of their opponents all weekend. It’s really a battle between these two and Massachusetts’ Jeff Babbitt in the ‘criminally unknown outside their regions players to watch’ category at Nationals.

POOL ANALYSIS

EMU will face Colorado, Harvard, Wisconsin, and UC San Diego in Pool A.

All four teams come into Cincinnati having won their Regions and all four will prove very challenging in one common way: they’re deep. UCSD won the Southwest on their depth alone. Harvard has a deep bench. Colorado has a smaller roster this year, but can sub comfortably with almost every player. Wisconsin is always packed with capable defenders.

Expect EMU to pick their battles a bit, perhaps saving some energy for their matchup with UCSD (certainly their most winnable game) and Harvard. Wisconsin will smother EMU a bit with an always vicious defense; the higher seeded Harvard may offer a juicier opportunity to steal a win. John Stubbs and the Harvard defense will have their hands full with the very athletic EMU offense.

The big problem for EMU is that they simply haven’t played competition of this caliber very often this season, and, when they have, they’ve been soundly beaten. They are probably more likely to lose all their games than win one or more. But as we saw at Regionals, Highsmith and Bansfield can get hot. If they do, things could get fun.

Dartmouth (16-7)

Key Wins: UNC-Wilmington, Massachusetts
Key Losses: Harvard, Tufts, San Diego State, Georgia Tech

After a stellar 2013 season that saw them reach the quarterfinals at the College Championships and put a scare into Central Florida in that game, Dartmouth returns to Nationals after a more muted regular season. They have just a couple of wins against Nationals bound teams — a very nice win over UNC Wilmington (but at Queen City Tune Up, where UNCW was a shell of their current team) and a pair of victories over Massachusetts at Regionals.

The team is not as deep as it was last year when it beat Tufts in the game-to-go in just a two bid New England region. But coach Brook Martin squeezed every ounce out of the team last year to push them to quarters — and nearly to semis. Don’t be surprised if they outperform their regular season results yet again this season.

Spencer Diamond is the offensive lynchpin for Dartmouth, using his unpredictable style to get the disc in his hands anywhere on the field. From there, he can use a wide variety of throws to do damage. Deep threat Andrew Pillsbury and middle cutter Arthur Bledsoe also contribute heavily to the stat sheet.

Don’t read too much into their Regionals losses to Harvard and Tufts — in both games, they largely shut down their top playmakers. Against Harvard, they wanted to save legs for a more winnable game-to-go later in the tournament. Against Tufts, they had already qualified for Nationals and were running with open lines.

POOL ANALYSIS

Dartmouth will face Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, Michigan, and Central Florida in pool play.

Like the other five seeds, Dartmouth faces a seriously uphill battle. With last year’s finalists along with one of the country’s hottest teams, Michigan, in their pool, they’ll need an inspired performance to challenge for a prequarters spot.

Their game against Texas A&M seems the most winnable, as both teams rely on a few key players and don’t have the kind of depth the rest of the teams in their pool have. If Dartmouth can find good matchups for Dalton Smith and Matt Bennett, they’ll have a chance. The other three teams all simply have more talent than Dartmouth and should be considered big favorites.

Massachusetts (22-8)

Key Wins: Michigan, Carleton, UNC Wilmington, Rutgers
Key Losses: UNC, Florida State, Dartmouth

When considering the entirety of the regular season and Series, it is clear that Massachusetts has the most impressive resume of any of the five seeds. A pair of losses to Dartmouth at Regionals pushed UMass down, and rightly so, but they have showed an ability — especially in calm weather conditions — to trouble some of the country’s better teams.

A windy New England Regionals did not exactly play to their offensive strengths, although their defense — a 1-3-3 zone anchored by two exceptional deep defenders — was effective enough to earn them a spot at Nationals after earning a bid with a good regular season.

Let’s be clear: the team is not deep and, if it is to do well, it will need a big performance from its budding superstar Jeff Babbitt. Babbitt is widely known in the Northeast after doing serious damage for Garuda in the club season and making spectacular plays all this year for UMass. He is in contention for player of the year in New England — as a sophomore.

While he is not the only player that can make things happen for Massachusetts, getting him going is vital to their success. He will play both ways a lot and draw some of the toughest matchups. Ben Katz, an Ironside practice player last year, is also a big contributor.

The team also has a bevy of skilled throwers who have come up through the Amherst High School pipeline; they will be comfortable with new assistant coach Tiina Booth, the long-time ARHS coach, on the sideline. Booth has taken on an increasingly large role with the team and will travel to her first tournament outside of New England with the team for Nationals.

POOL ANALYSIS

Massachusetts will face Texas, North Carolina, Florida State, and Tufts in their pool.

You can’t help but get excited about the possible matchups that Babbitt will take on as UMass looks to score an upset: could Will Driscoll take the assignment for Texas? Charlie Schaffner for UNC? Babbitt has a chance to make a real name for himself in his individual matchups, facing some of the best deep defenders in the game. Driscoll needs no introduction and Schaffner led the 2013 College Championships in blocks by a mile with 15.

UMass is no doubt eager to take on Tufts in what is surely their most winnable game. Tufts will have a hard time matching up with the bigger athletes UMass has. Unfortunately for Massachusetts, they just don’t have a lot of legs or depth and injuries have been a problem. A prequarters appearance would be a huge achievement, but, as a somewhat surprise qualifier, they may be overwhelmed by the moment.

Rutgers (21-7)

Key Wins: Cornell
Key Losses: Cornell, Maryland, NC State

The tournament’s bottom seed comes into the College Championships as more of a story — somebody finally beat Cornell? — than a well-considered opponent. That hasn’t stopped the team from exuding confidence as they wade into Pool D in Cincinnati.

While there’s always a chance they could catch one of their opponents sleeping, the fact remains that it is very unlikely Rutgers manages a single win in their pool. The team has basically not played an opponent at the level of any they will see at Nationals. Cornell is not exactly a juggernaut.

But Rutgers’ feistiness and complete lack of pressure to win games could play to their advantage. They certainly have players who know what it’s like to play at a high level — Albert Alarcon, Josh Alorro, and Mike Sender all played for New York PoNY last season. Alarcon, particularly, is cool under pressure and came up with some huge plays in PoNY’s near upset of Machine in prequarters.

But like on many Metro East teams, the talent down the roster drops off precipitously. Rutgers can put out a line of seven that can compete with the other teams in the pool, but their 7-14 will be starkly weaker than their opponents’.

Still, expect them to fight and to make some big plays: Jibran Mieser will have some huge blocks and scores, Alorro will make some excellent throws, and Alarcon will continue to do damage with his off hand (his throwing wrist is broken).

POOL ANALYSIS

Rutgers will face Oregon, UNC Wilmington, Florida, and Carleton in pool play.

It’s simple: Rutgers is way outmatched. Perhaps their biggest potential upset comes in the first round of the tournament on Friday when they face Florida, a team that has a similar style: top-heavy, tight rotation, skill dropoff after top 7.

But Rutgers’ players will have to manage not only trying to stop Florida’s strong athletes, but also will have to try to shake the nerves of playing at their first College Championships. It’s a tall task and we’ll know right away if they are in the conversation for any upsets.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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