Barbecue and a showcase game at the fields. 80 degree weather and winds at 10-20 miles per hour. Austin, Texas. Yup, it must be Centex!
As another SXSW trickles out of town, the 2013 edition of Centex is shaping up to be an extremely competitive one, as four teams hope to solidify their place in the USAU Top-20, while another three teams are within striking distance of a strength bid. Arizona, winner of Santa Barbara Invite and Presidents Day, headlines the field, while home team and Florida Winter Classic runner-up Texas takes the second seed. A resurgent Harvard squad and a feisty Texas A&M team round out the top seeds, but Eastern Michigan and Georgia Tech lurk just below, ready to capture what would be an upset in seed only.
This year’s Centex format is easier on the body and mind than those in years past, as each team will play four games on Saturday and three on Sunday, barring any late-round consolation forfeits. Gone are the days of the 24-team battles, playing five games in a row in the brutal heat on Saturday, before completing your three-game bracket play on Sunday morning. And for most of these teams, this is a good thing.
Many teams at Centex 2013 are capable of playing very high level ultimate with their top 10 players, but on the fourth game of the weekend, the most important for 8 of the teams hoping to make it into quarterfinals, only the deepest or best-conditioned teams will be able to grind out a victory and a place in the championship bracket. And those are the qualities required to make a deep Regionals run, which is something that all of these teams will be trying to do when the Series rolls around. Of the 16-team field, only Texas, Georgia Tech, and California played at the College Championships last year, but at least half of the teams at Centex this year have a legitimate shot at making it to Madison this year. This grueling Centex will be great preparation for all 16 teams.
One of the biggest storylines of the tournament actually revolves around another tournament – the Dream Cup, in Fuji, Japan. College stars and Doublewide teammates Will Driscoll (Texas) and Dalton Smith (Texas A&M) will be missing Centex to play with a USA All-Star team at the Dream Cup, while their teams seek to earn three bids for the South Central region. Smith leaves A&M in the more than capable hands of Matt Bennett, A&M’s electrifying handler, but his absence will be a big blow. TUFF will miss Driscoll as well, but they have a history of being a deeper team, and Virginia does not pose nearly as much of a threat in pool play as Eastern Michigan does to Dozen.
Beyond that, Arizona will be looking to rebound after a rough Stanford Invite, as will Texas and Texas A&M. Harvard hasn’t played since the Queen City Tune-Up, but they showed defensive tenacity and an ability to grind on offense that fell just short of upsets against Ohio and UNC. Anyone in the top 6 seeds could conceivably make a run at the title, but even lower-ranked teams are sensing weakness at the top and looking to play spoiler. Let’s break it down by pool.
Pool A: Arizona, Kansas, California, Oklahoma
With an abundance of film on Arizona’s early season success, teams have been able to game plan for Arizona’s famous zone. The 3-1-2-1 containment zone still forced turnovers at Stanford Invite, but at a much lower rate than it had at earlier tournaments. The wind should help Arizona here, but teams will take their cue from Tufts and come in prepared to slice and dice the zone. Arizona’s offensive gameplan was bailed out by continual upline handler cuts against UNCW, but their downfield cutters stagnated, and eventually UNCW was able to stop the handler motion and go on a run to take the game. Can Kansas or Cal do the same?
Kansas is 7-1 right now, their only loss coming at the hands of Missouri in the finals at Huck Finn, 2-11. They’re sitting in the #28 spot in the USA Ultimate rankings, and a surprise win over Arizona here could catapult them into the top-20, however unlikely that may be. Cal is still reeling from a disastrous Stanford Open, going 1-5, but they have the experience, if not the players, to do well at a difficult tournament like Centex. This is a solid but unspectacular Cal team, but they should be able to knock off Kansas and earn an easier prequarter matchup.
Prediction: Arizona, California, Kansas, Oklahoma
Pool B: Texas, Virginia, Arizona State, Colorado College
Without Will Driscoll, Texas loses a bit of star power, but the Texas offense is not centered around Driscoll, perhaps to its detriment. The Texas roster is full of solid players, cutters who can advance the disc and handlers with a little bit of trickery about them. In contrast to Texas, Virginia relies heavily on their own star player, cutter Aaron Mullins. He’s an athletic receiver who will grind down any matchup with his impressive endurance, and he plays both ways for Night Train. But the team’s general inconsistency around Mullins may hurt them, although they should comfortably finish 2nd in this pool.
Arizona State will be looking to finally make the splash on the national scene that they’ve been aiming for the last couple years. After a disappointing Santa Barbara and Queen City, they beat up on mediocre competition at Trouble in Vegas before falling to Florida, Canada U-23, and San Diego State and a 9-11 record. They lost to UVA at Queen City, but maybe they learned enough from that game to come back with the upset. Colorado College, since their Cinderella 2011 season, has gotten more notoriety for a 30 second Harlem Shake video than a season and a half of ultimate. Is this where they turn it around?
Prediction: Texas, Virginia, Arizona State, Colorado College
Pool C: Harvard, Georgia Tech, Iowa, Illinois
Harvard was the surprise of Queen City, losing close to finalists Ohio and UNC while knocking off their biggest rival, Tufts. With Tufts a recent semifinalist at Stanford Invite, Harvard’s win gains more significance. Misha Herscu, Piers MacNaughton, and Wesley Mann lead this frustratingly efficient Harvard squad. Their offense is stocked with experienced ultimate players who know the value of a turnover, and they know how to frustrate teams on defense as well. Against inexperienced or impatient teams, this Harvard squad will get an early lead and never look back.
But this might also be the pool where Jay Clark’s Callahan campaign really takes off. With a big weekend from Clark and the Georgia Tech supporting cast, Georgia Tech can rise up to a top-20 spot (sitting at #25 right now) and another strength bid for the wide-open Southeast region. This is a perfect tournament to prepare for a grueling Southeast Regionals, where any of Central Florida, Florida State, Florida, Georgia Tech, or even Georgia could make it to the College Championships.
This is also the pool where Iowa and Illinois can get their seasons back on track. Both teams barely missed out on Boulder last year, after being heavy favorites to secure a spot. This year they floundered at Huck Finn, and nobody really knows how good these teams actually are. Both teams have Championship experience from 2011, and pity the teams who overlook either one. It will be interesting to see what changes Iowa’s new coach Bart Watson has in store for the team after Huck Finn.
Predictions: Harvard, Georgia Tech, Iowa, Illinois
Pool D: Texas A&M, Eastern Michigan, Georgetown, UW-Milwaukee
I’ll be coaching in this pool, so I’ll get to see the fireworks firsthand. Eastern Michigan is primed for an upset here, looking to get their program’s first marquee win in a long time over a Texas A&M team missing Dalton Smith. EMU, behind James Highsmith, Kris Coley, and Johnny Bansfield, is the frontrunner in the Great Lakes region right now. With the region likely to only get one bid to Madison, this is great practice for the Hellfish. Dozen will be relying on Matt Bennett to be all over the field, as both a scorer and provider, and judging by his performance at Stanford Invite, he seems up to the task.
Georgetown (disclaimer: I am the coach) will be looking to meet the top two teams with a variety of aggressive defenses. At Easterns Qualifier, the D line broke upwind well behind junior Scott Hampton and freshman Nico Lake, and if the O line holds steady, Georgetown could steal a game or two from the top seeds. UW-Milwaukee ended Iowa’s season last year at North Central regionals, and their huck-happy gameplan plays into the hands of the teams above them. But a close 9-7 loss to Georgetown at Queen City proves they’re competitive.
Predictions: Eastern Michigan (2-1), Texas A&M (2-1), Georgetown (2-1), UW-Milwaukee
Predictions: Bracket Play
Quarterfinals: Arizona over Texas A&M, Eastern Michigan over California, Texas over Georgia Tech, Harvard over Georgetown
Semifinals: Eastern Michigan over Arizona, Texas over Harvard
Finals: Texas over Eastern Michigan