A down year for the Great Lakes means that it's anybody's bid.
April 23, 2015 by Sean Myers in Preview with 2 comments
The region, usually dominated by a Michigan team of national caliber, ended the regular season without any teams ranked in the top 20. As a result, there is only one bid to the College Championships to go around at the 2015 Regional tournament. Because of the lack of a team in the upper echelon of the college game, many of the games in the region have gone under the radar, played in side tournaments or consolation brackets. The last major tournament of the season, Easterns, saw the top three teams from the Great Lakes — Northwestern, Michigan, and Illinois — on the field. None of them, however, made an impression, going a collective 3-9 in pool play, and finishing in 14th, 15th, and 17th place.
The difficulty that the region’s teams have had in pulling away from each other, to establish a clear favorite to take the bid, make for an interesting Regional tournament.
The Top Contenders
While there has never been a clear leader in the race for the Great Lakes’ bid, there are several teams that have established themselves as the teams to beat.
Michigan is a perennial contender in the Regional tournament, and this year is no exception. Their strength as a program, with experience at the highest levels of the college game, are consistently an asset that make them a team that needs to be accounted for, particularly this late in the season. Their ability to wear teams down and seem to get better the longer the game or tournament goes on becomes crucial in tight games and deep into Sunday bracket play.
Their roster turnover from last year’s strong finish – taking the crown at Regionals and finishing a surprise 5th at Nationals – is small, but important: They lost Yonatan Rafael, last season’s captain, leader, Callahan nominee, and offensive stalwart, as well as a solid contributor in Ryan Schechtman. However, capable younger athletes have risen to take their place, developing into players that make this year’s MagnUM seem perhaps a bit better, on paper.
Michigan’s prowess showed early in the season, with strong play in the Queen City Tune Up, though predominantly against teams lower in the pecking order. At Easterns, though Michigan was faced with other contenders for the College Championships. They came out 2-5, including a 15-10 defeat to regional opponent Northwestern.
If Michigan’s season started strong, only to wane, Northwestern’s season has been the exact opposite. A disappointing 1-8 performance at the Florida Warm Up put them at square one for the season, and likely prevented Northwestern’s USAU rankings from getting very high over the course of the season. However, it was February then – NUT was dealing with injured players, and was more interested in keeping their lines open to get newer players the playing time they needed to develop. The strong showing at Easterns might be a better indication of where Northwestern stands, now. While they failed to contain North Carolina, Northwestern trounced North Carolina State, played Florida and Florida State – both likely to compete at Nationals – to within a couple points, and delivered a stiff 15-10 defeat to Michigan. They then swept through their Conference without much of a challenge, beating Chicago and Illinois by significant margins.
Rounding out the top tier is Illinois. Like Michigan, their stock has slid over the course of the season. Unlike MagnUM, however, it has fallen enough to make it seem like the scattered victories were anomalies. The 13-9 win over Central Florida at the Florida Warm Up was a pool play shocker, and came in the same tournament as losses to Penn State, BYU, and Georgetown. The remainder of Illinois’ season has been similar, with losses to top teams, and a mix of wins and losses to teams of relatively equal power. At Conferences, Illinois split games with Chicago, losing on game point in one, winning 15-6 in the other, but also lost 15-9 to Northwestern. If trends tell a story, it is that Illinois will likely be watching who will take the Great Lakes bid from the Regional finals.
The Long Shots
The amount of parity in the Great Lakes region has led to a lot of dark horse candidates, who could really ruin the season of one of the top-3 in Sunday’s bracket play.
Eastern Michigan has not gone away. They may be without last year’s stars James Highsmith or Johnny Bansfield, but the remaining group of players has experience playing against nationals-level talent. They gave Michigan a fight at Conferences, losing 12-8, and can do it again at Regionals.
Chicago had a surprisingly strong showing at Conferences, including a 12-11 victory over Illinois. They’ve beaten a team in the region’s top: They know that they can do it again.
It might seem a stretch to include Indiana here, but if there’s a team that will break seed, it will probably be the Hoosier Mama’s. They played Michigan down to the wire at Cat Fight, losing 11-10, beat Purdue twice at Conferences, and split two games with 4th-ranked Notre Dame there, as well. Don’t be surprised if they’re still standing after the quarterfinals.
Notre Dame might make a splash in Rockford. However, the Papal Rage has spent all season playing middling teams in collateral tournaments, and likely does not have the experience to deal with several games against teams with their kind of talent.
Both Michigan State and Illinois State are teams that will almost certainly still be relevant at 8 AM on Sunday. Their past performance against teams they’ll be facing at Regionals shows that they know how to beat the lower seeds. It will be a huge upset, however, if they can knock off one of the better seeded teams, though. Michigan State, like others in their conference, was trounced by MagnUM on their way to Regionals, while Illinois State had convincing losses to Northwestern, Chicago, and Illinois in their own Conferences.
While a finals match between two of the top three teams is likely, it would not be unexpected for an upset to put a huge spin on the championship bracket.
The Great Lakes has been quiet. The only thing that we can be sure of at Regionals is that somebody will make some noise.