2021 NCAA Tournament Preview: Top Half

(Photo Courtesy of North Carolina Athletics)

The NCAA Tournament bracket is set and the fight to be the final team standing on Memorial Day gets underway on Saturday at noon.

Each half (top and bottom) of the bracket will see two teams advance to Championship Weekend. In the top half, the road to East Hartford, Conn. runs through Hempstead, N.Y., and in the bottom half, it runs through South Bend, Ind.

The top half of the bracket does look a bit weaker than the bottom half overall, but it likely has a higher number of unseeded teams that could make some noise. However, the top half does contain top-seeded North Carolina and defending champion Virginia, who is the No. 4 seed.

You can view the full NCAA Bracket here.

Here’s a look at some storylines and superlatives for the top half of the bracket:

National Title Favorite

No. 1 seeded North Carolina is the obvious favorite in the top half of the bracket. Not only do the Tar Heels come into the tournament as the top seed, but as co-ACC Champions and riding a three-game winning streak that dates back to their April 17th blowout win over Syracuse. The Tar Heels have passed every test thrown at them this season to this point and there is no reason to believe it’ll be any different during the tournament.

With a Chris Gray-led offense that has seemingly gotten more diverse from a production standpoint, especially at the midfield, as the season has gone on, a defense that features a top-notch pole in Will Bowen and is anchored by freshman phenom Collin Kreig in cage, and a solid one-two punch at the faceoff dot in Andrew Tyeryear and Zach Tucci, the Tar Heels certainly have the talent to make a title run.

Best First-Round Game

No. 8 Lehigh vs Rutgers isn’t just arguably the best and most intriguing matchup of first-round in the top half of the bracket, but the entire bracket. Beyond this contest being a meeting between two top-five offenses, it is also a battle between the Kirst brothers. Connor and Colin are leaders for Rutgers on both ends at the midfield and goalie positions and Cole is a top-three scorer for Lehigh. While Rutgers certainly comes into their first NCAA Tournament game since 2004 with a lot of offensive firepower and hype, the Mountain Hawks have the upper hand at the faceoff dot with Mike Sisselberger currently leading the nation in faceoff percentage.

No. 5 Georgetown vs Syracuse is also another matchup that not only gives off late 90s and early 2000s vibes but could also be one heck of a contest.

Best Potential Matchup

No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Georgetown was one of the most highly anticipated matchups coming up the week that the 2020 season was shut down. If these two squads get past their first two contests it’ll be a Tar Heels vs Hoyas matchup to go to the national title game. The exciting matchups that this game would present are practically endless. Not only would it be the nation’s top offense (North Carolina) against the nation’s top defense (Georgetown), but we’d also see a Chris Gray vs Gibson Smith matchup, a battle at the faceoff dot between the one-two punch of Andrew Tyeryear and Zach Tucci for Carolina and Georgetown’s James Reilly, and a goalie duel between Georgetown’s Owen McElroy, who leads the nation in save percentage, and Collin Krieg, who is the top freshman at the position.

Underdog With The Most Potential

As I mentioned in my top three underdogs to watch article earlier this week, Bryant isn’t a team that you want to mess with in May. Not only do they have a history with upsets, pulling off perhaps the greatest upset of all-time when they beat No. 2 Syracuse in the first round of the 2014 tournament, but they have fought through more than most teams during this crazy season. From three separate pauses due to COVID-19 protocols, injuries, and having to play a game with only one goalie, the Bulldogs have been through the gauntlet and still came out on top in the NEC.

Just based on what they’ve fought through this season, the Bulldogs might have the best chance at pulling off a major upset than anyone during this tournament. That looks even more promising when you consider the talent they have on both ends of the field that can match up with Virginia fairly well. And we’ve seen a Virginia team lose in the first round following a national title run before. Remember 2007? And if memory serves correct, it was stellar play at the faceoff dot, in cage, and an elite offensive threat that helped Delaware to victory in that one. Does Bryant have a similar situation with attackman Marc O’Rouke, who is back healthy after missing most of the season, faceoff man Jacob Alexander, and Luke Caracciolo in cage?

One Player From Each Team You Need to Know

Chris Gray, Attack, North Carolina: The senior stepped on campus in Chapel Hill last season after two fantastic years at Boston U. and the Tar Heels only have two losses since. The attackman not only leads the nation in points with 75 off 53 goals and 22 assists, and is the quarterback of the Carolina offense, but he is also an expected Tewaaraton finalist.

Matt Soutar, Faceoff, Monmouth: The number four ranked faceoff man in win percentage, Soutar has been a crucial piece of the Hawks’ run back to the NCAA Tournament. Soutar has gone 150-for-210 (71%) on the year.

Mike Sisselberger, Faceoff, Lehigh: Since taking over early in the season, Sisselberger has asserted him as one of the most dominant faceoff men in the nation and helped be a catalyst to the Mountain Hawks’ success. He leads the nation in faceoff percentage, going 210-for-264 (79%) on the season.

Adam Charalambides, Rutgers: One of two seventh-year players in college lacrosse this season, Charalambides has taken the reigns of the Rutgers’ offense and ran with it this season as their top attackman. The Ontario native has tallied 53 points on 37 goals and 16 assists this season.

Owen McElroy, Goalie, Georgetown: As the nation’s leader in save percentage, McElroy anchors the nation’s top defense, allowing 7.93 goals per game. The goalie has recorded 154 with a 60% save percentage.

Stephen Rehfuss, Attack, Syracuse: Amidst a very ruckus and inconsistent season, Rehfuss has been one of the more consistent pieces to this Orange offense. He leads Syracuse with 52 points off 25 goals and 27 assists.

Jared Conners, LSM, Virginia: The ultimate Swiss Army Knife, if there ever was one. Conners simply does it all for the Cavaliers. Arguably the top LSM in college lacrosse, Conners has gobbled up 70 ground balls, caused 19 turnovers, and tallied seven points off two goals and five assists this season.

Marc O’Rouke, Attack, Bryant: After being out for the first eight games of the season, O’Rouke has put up 23 points (20G/3A) and asserted himself as a top-three scorer and the Bulldogs’ most lethal scorer.

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