It is time. On Sunday evening, the Quest For Nine commences.
After what has been an unbelievably long and draining calendar year for Indiana men's soccer and its fans, the wait is over. Sure, IU claimed its third-straight Big Ten Double -- a feat that deserves significant praise -- after defeating Penn State two weeks ago via penalty kicks in the Big Ten Tournament finals.
But anyone who follows the Hoosiers knows what the ultimate goal is each season: a ninth NCAA title.
With that, let's dive into another installment of The Q49 Journal.
Up first: St. Francis Brooklyn
History took place Thursday night when St. Francis Brooklyn defeated Milwaukee, 2-1, in overtime to claim the Terriers' first NCAA Tournament victory since 1978. El Mahdi Youssoufi scored an improbable equalizer in the 89th to force overtime. Then, in the 105th minute, Ivan Tapuskovic buried the golden goal to lift the Terriers into the second round against Indiana.
For the Hoosier historians out there, Indiana and Jerry Yeagley hadn't yet won their first national championship the last time St. Francis Brooklyn won an NCAA Tournament match before Thursday. Insanity.
So how will Todd Yeagley and IU's coaching staff prepare on just a few days notice?
"The staff, we've kind of divided and conquered," Yeagley said. "I've had the assistants help with the initial dissection of both teams. So we have tendencies down for both, and we don't show the team yet until we know who we're playing."
However, Indiana will not be at full strength against the Terriers. Freshman center back Joey Maher, who started all 11 games this season, will be forced to sit out Sunday's match due to receiving a red card in the Big Ten Tournament finals.
Though it's not clear how Todd Yeagley will handle Maher's absence, the Hoosiers have some options.
Freshman defender Lawson Redmond logged crucial minutes during the Big Ten Tournament finals after not seeing much action all season. Redmond is better suited on the flanks, though, and IU was playing a man down at the time, which will not be the case against St. Francis Brooklyn.
Another name that could see the field is redshirt freshman Andrew Goldsworthy. While he's only seen action in two games this season, he has the build to potentially fill some minutes next to Daniel Munie on the backline.
Whichever route IU decides to approach the less-than-ideal situation, Yeagley said they are still working through some ideas.
"Certainly experimenting with the moves we might do with Joey's absence due to the red card," Yeagley said. "He's obviously a big piece to this first game."
A closer look at IU's potential road to the College Cup
With a smaller NCAA Tournament field this season (36 teams) and all games being played at various sites around North Carolina, IU will face a unique set of circumstances.
The most obvious difference this season is a lack of home-field advantage. Where as in a normal season, a No. 3 overall seed would have allowed the Hoosiers to host a majority of their NCAA Tournament matches in Bloomington, that will not be the case this season.
"I think what we have to do is just keep things as consistent and as simple as it needs to be," Yeagley said, "and not overexaggerate or overthink, really, that we're all in a bubble and we're not playing at home."
The "bubble" format -- similar to what the NCAA implemented for the men's and women's basketball tournament -- will also act as a new experience.
If Indiana makes a deep tournament that lasts into the College Cup semifinals, the team will have spent over 14 days inside the tournament bubble.
There's also some good news, though. Even with IU -- and presumably all teams -- keeping its circle tight, there will still be opportunities to leave the hotel together. The restrictions, it seems, will be slightly more relaxed than what we saw with the NCAA basketball tournament.
"The positive for our tournament is that it won't be as quite locked down," Yeagley said. "We can leave the hotel. We just have to be really smart with where we go, and it'll only be our team and our bubble.
"But we can go to a local park, we can move around a little bit. Just everything we do is an inherent risk if you're not smart, and we'll be really intelligent."
And now to the actual bracket itself.
The Hoosiers received one of the more friendlier draws (at least in this writer's opinion) compared to some other top-tier teams in the tournament. Where as No. 2-seed Pittsburgh (assuming an opening round win) would play the winner of Central Florida-James Madison in the third round, Indiana would await the winner of Marquette-Loyola Marymount.
Looking beyond that, I think Virginia Tech and No. 6 Seton Hall have the best chance to emerge from the bottom-half of the region. Should IU advance to the quarterfinals, a showdown with either the Hokies or the Pirates would be an electric atmosphere.
Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, the Hoosiers still have to take care of business Sunday against St. Francis Brooklyn. Which brings me to the next question...
What is Indiana's ceiling?
First, let's address the proverbial elephant in the room: the absence of redshirt senior left back Spencer Glass cannot be replaced. Although the Hoosiers managed to hoist the Big Ten Tournament title without its co-captain, the NCAA Tournament is a whole different beast.
All it takes is a single mistake in the backline for the season to be cut short (see: IU's final game in 2019). While the Hoosiers have the pieces -- namely Brett Bebej -- to fill Glass' void, it's going to be darn near impossible to replace his uncanny playmaking ability. Whether it was crisp services in front of the net or savvy cutting and dribbling, the wealth of experience Glass brings in high-stakes settings will surely be missed.
What's more, you simply cannot replace Glass' leadership and voice. Though other players may try to step up and fill the role, there's no substitution for a widely-respect veteran presence. That, alone, may lower the Hoosiers' NCAA Tournament ceiling.
But that doesn't mean IU can't still make a run at a ninth banner.
How far Indiana can go in the NCAA Tournament begins and ends with two players: forward Victor Bezerra and goalkeeper Roman Celentano -- the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year.
"Confidence with a goal scorer gives your team a different edge," Yeagley said.
If Bezerra can continue his white-hot scoring pace, there's no reason to believe Indiana won't have its share of scoring opportunities in each match. Couple that with Celentano's 92.3% save percentage (2nd-best nationally), and IU has the two key cogs that are absolutely vital for any team hoping for a deep postseason run.
⚽️ Bracket Update ⚽️
4 men's teams advance to the second round ‼️#NCAASoccer pic.twitter.com/lBCObvxo8y
— NCAA Soccer (@NCAASoccer) April 30, 2021
(Note: This is strictly the writer's opinion.)
Second Round -- Indiana vs. St. Francis Brooklyn -- Indiana wins, 3-0
Third Round -- Indiana vs. Loyola Marymount -- Indiana wins in overtime, 2-1
Quarterfinals -- Indiana vs. Virginia Tech -- Indiana wins, 1-0
College Cup semifinals -- Indiana vs. Washington -- Indiana wins in penalty kicks, 0-0 (5-4)
College Cup finals -- Indiana vs. Clemson -- ??? wins in overtime, 1-0
Analysis: Yes, I know it's a bit of a cop-out on my end to not pick a champion. However, I firmly believe Clemson and Indiana are the two best teams in the nation this season -- Pittsburgh is not far behind -- and I simply couldn't get myself to choose between the two.
When it comes to Indiana's side of the bracket, I could certainly see a couple of upsets happening that shake-up the entire tournament in a major way. I like what I've seen from Virginia Tech this season, and despite what their record may indicate, I have them as my potential sleeper in Indiana's region.
On the bottom half of the bracket, I have No. 7 Washington vs. No. 3 Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals with the winner playing Indiana in the College Cup semifinals. Should this showdown come to fruition, it would be one heck of a matchup.
Finally, unless the weather in North Carolina goes completely off the rails, IU's backline combined with Roman Celentano's season-long excellence in net should be a recipe for success -- I mean, this is the same backline who conceded two goals in regulation all season.
The last College Cup run IU made in 2018, it was largely due to the presence of star goalkeeper Trey Muse and a stout backline. The Hoosiers have similar pieces this season, though not having Spencer Glass' leadership and experience in the postseason could make for a glaring weakness.
Bottom line: The lack of overall NCAA Tournament experience among IU's rotational pieces does warrant some hesitance when predicting a deep run. Of IU's major contributors, only three players -- A.J. Palazzolo, Joe Schmidt, Thomas Warr -- have extensive playing experience in an NCAA Tournament atmosphere.
However, with a premier goal scorer in Bezerra, supporting pieces in Palazzolo, Schmidt, Ryan Wittenbrink, Herbert Endeley and more, and a backline that hasn't given up much of anything this season, IU seems to be in a great spot.