With match-play competition again deciding who will be crowned NCAA men’s champs, this week’s regionals opens the door for many teams to have a legitimate chance of winning it all in a couple of weeks at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
This marks the fourth year the match-play format will be used for the top eight teams, and in each of the past three years, the eventual winner was not an overwhelming favorite. Were they a longshot? No. But they certainly were not one of the top picks. Ranked No. 14 heading to Inverness, Texas A&M won the 2009 title. Augusta State has won the last two titles with slightly better rankings – No. 5 in 2010 and No. 8 in 2011.
Will that trend continue this year, or will one of the top two or three teams steer its way through regionals, 54 holes of stroke-play qualifying at Riviera and then come out on top in three consecutive matches to win it all? The match-play format provides an opportunity for so many more teams who otherwise wouldn’t have a shot at a national title. No wonder that a majority of coaches want to see this format continue.
First things first, however. Teams must finish in the top 5 at this week’s regionals to have a shot.
A few thoughts about the six regionals:
Southeast Regional, University of Georgia Golf Course, Athens, Ga.
• The run to winning a title for Jay Seawell’s Crimson Tide starts here. If this team can avoid potholes in the road and get in position come Thursday at Riviera – look out! Alabama has five players ranked inside the top 53 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings.
• New Mexico, which has the second-most head-to-head wins in college golf (136), is a team that is very dangerous if it gets hot, with three very good players who can win matches at the end if they find a way to stay close. The Lobos must have consistent play from start to finish and a little more help from the bottom of the roster. Keep an eye on this squad.
• What a nice job longtime Arizona State assistant Mickey Yokoi has done this spring since becoming the head coach at Long Beach State. The 49ers would be a Cinderella story, but may be a little out of their comfort zone on the East Coast.
• Just think about how far down the Iowa program was a few years ago before it hired Mark Hankins. Now the Hawkeyes are a top regional seed.
• He won’t win Coach of the Year, but Kevin McPherson has done a great job getting Augusta State into the postseason. How many schools could lose its entire starting five from an NCAA Championship team and be in the mix again?
East Regional, Grandover Resort (East Course), Greensboro, N.C.
• Nick Clinard has guided Auburn to the No. 1 seed, but can he guide them to a top-5 finish? Auburn has missed advancing to the NCAA Championship in each of his first two years with the Tigers.
• This is a tough draw for UNLV, and it might be a tough task for the Rebels to finish in the top 5. UNLV does not travel east of the Mississippi very often, doing so only once this year and placing sixth at the Jerry Pate. Add to that fact that the Rebels have advanced to only one NCAA Championship in the last five years.
• Who out there thinks SMU will advance under first-year head coach Josh Gregory, who led Augusta State to the past two titles? It would be an interesting story if the Mustangs do.
• Neither Charlotte nor George Washington will finish in the top 5, but it will be fun to keep an eye on these two teams after George Washington won the 36-hole, rain-shortened Atlantic 10 Championship by two strokes, halting Charlotte’s six-year winning streak.
• Indiana coach Mike Mayer has done a tremendous job with the Hoosier program in the past decade – better than most realize. But one thing that lacks for Mayer is NCAA Championship appearances. This week would be very satisfying because this team wasn’t predicted at the start of the year to be a top-5 seed.
Central Regional, University of Michigan Golf Course, Ann Arbor, Mich.
• Oklahoma State is looking to extend a streak that seems almost unreal. The Cowboys have played in 65 consecutive NCAA Championships dating back to 1947. Mike McGraw’s squad, which played the nation’s toughest schedule this year, was almost denied the opportunity because of the .500 Rule. Oklahoma State finished the year 66-64-3 to be eligible for the postseason – barely.
• Can’t wait to see how Dartmouth’s Peter Williamson plays this week. The senior has lost to only six players all season long. He has won four times in eight starts and has a 69.8 scoring average.
• Kent State is good. That’s about all that needs to be said.
• Wouldn’t it be nice to see Virginia’s Ben Kohles lead his squad to the championship? Kohles, now a senior, has been one of the most overlooked players in the college game, but he has a chance to make a splash in the next few weeks.
• Something tells me Oregon is going to be a tough team to deal with this year. The Ducks are loaded with senior experience.
South Central Regional, The Club at Olde Stone, Bowling Green, Ky.
• Arkansas is tied with Auburn for the fewest head-to-head losses this year in college golf with 12. And many think this squad would be a tough out in match-play competition.
• A lot of eyes are on Patrick Cantlay this year. Everyone’s Player of the Year last season has struggled in college this year. Can he take his game back to that next level and make UCLA a legit title threat?
• Memphis has been one of the most overlooked top-40 teams all season long. This week, the Tigers have a chance to change that. Don’t be too surprised if Memphis makes a little noise.
• Missouri’s Jace Long will be looking to win a second regional in a row. He won the Southeast Regional a year ago with a closing 62. Long is playing this week without his team. The Tigers were a bubble team that ended up on the outside looking in. Had Long not missed a start in Hawaii, they probably would have been a postseason lock. Without its star, Missouri finished 15th out of 17 teams at the John Burns Intercollegiate.
• Don’t be surprised if you see Northwestern flirting with the top 5. The Wildcats are a better team this spring, and they enter the postseason with some confidence after finishing in the top 4 in their past three starts.
Southwest Regional, Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club, Norman, Okla.
• On paper, this regional looks like a stack of dynamite. Usually, it’s only about earning a top-5 position and advancing, but winning this site will carry some clout heading to Riviera.
• Texas has been the nation’s premier team all season, but ultimately the Longhorns will be remembered for what they do during the next few weeks.
• Second-seeded Georgia Tech is a No. 1 wearing a No. 2 costume. That’s all you need to know about the Yellow Jackets.
• It’s always a treat to watch Matt Thurmond’s Washington teams. What we know is that the Huskies will be prepared and have fun – if they don’t make it, there will be no excuses. But they still need to whip up some of that old magic potion, something they used to have in abundance.
• Arizona head coach Rick LaRose has taken the Wildcats to 23 of the past 25 NCAA Championships. With LaRose retiring at season’s end, an encore this year would be special.
West Regional, Stanford Golf Course, Stanford, Calif.
• It sure has been fun following the California Golden Bears this season. With three wins and a pair of seconds this spring, there may not be a hotter team in college golf.
• Did anyone else notice that Central Florida is a top-5 seed? Quietly, UCF is ranked No. 22 and hoping to be noticed this week out West. Much like UNLV being sent East, however, it might be a tough task for the Golden Knights.
• San Diego State head coach Ryan Donovan has slowly but surely been getting more attention the past few years and deservingly so. This year, the Aztecs lost their best player midway through the season yet went on to win five tournaments in the spring.
• Is Wichita State, which has the most head-to-head wins in college golf with a 140-20-2 record, good enough to get to the finals?
• Last year, Kennesaw State played the longshot role and advanced to the NCAA Championship. This year, it could be the San Francisco Dons. They are familiar with this course, having played in Stanford’s event this spring, and should play with a nothing-to-lose attitude.