MD1 Bracket Breakdown: Denver Swings the Field
|Duke claimed the top seed in the
18-team NCAA tournament will play the winner of Air Force-Richmond
in the first round. (Peyton Williams)
The 18-team NCAA Division I men's tournament field was announced Sunday night live on ESPNU and, as usual, some storylines emerged with the bracket being released. Here's a breakdown:
The Top Seed
The Blue Devils were projected as the top seed in our final round of Bracketology on Sunday afternoon, and that prediction rang true, with Syracuse a close second. Duke's resume was the deepest and strongest of any team in the field, according to the 11 different criteria the five-person selection committee weighed.
Duke and Syracuse's RPI and strength of schedule were interchangeable and the Blue Devils' had one more RPI top-20 win than Syracuse (11-4) and one fewer RPI top-20 loss.
John Danowski's bunch was on a plane flight back from Boston on Sunday night as the 18-team bracket was announced. It had to have been a happy descent into Durham. Duke plays the winner of Wednesday's Air Force-Richmond play-in game at 5:15 p.m. Sunday. Syracuse plays the Bryant-Siena winner at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Some may have expected 15-1 Loyola, No. 1 in the Lacrosse Magazine rankings and other human polls, to take the top seed in the NCAA tournament, but Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey was not surprised that wasn't the case. His team ended up third facing a blockbuster first-round matchup with visiting Albany on Saturday.
"I've been on the committee," Toomey said. "I understand how important the RPI and strength of schedule numbers are. Everything is tied to the RPI, and I think we were a 4 RPI going in. I didn't, in my mind, have us going in as the one seed. I though we could be anywhere from one to four, depending on the personality of the committee. Were they going to be subjective? Were they going to be statistical? I think they did a good job, a fair job."
Last Team In
The last team in was Harvard, NCAA tournament chair Jim Siedliski said by phone late Sunday night from Indianapolis. The selection committee determined the Crimson had a better overall resume than Hofstra, which was the only other team seriously considered for the final at-large spot.
"It was a two-team analysis," Siedliski said for the final spot. "It was probably closer than people thought, but it was Harvard that got in."
First Team Out
The Pride were in as of Saturday, until Drexel beat them in triple overtime in the CAA final. The loss put Hofstra squarely on the bubble with Harvard.
The teams had similar RPIs, but Harvard had a much better strength of schedule and five RPI top-20 wins to Hofstra's four. The Crimson also don't have any bad losses while Hofstra had defeats to St. John's and Marquette on its record. Harvard's average RPI loss was 8.5 while Hofstra's was 22.8. Siedliski said the committee also did its due diligence on Princeton, Penn State, Yale, Fairfield and UMass.
There weren't any snubs. The 18-team field includes every team that had a legitimate case to win a national title. Had the tournament not expanded from 16 teams this year, however, there may have been a bit more debate with Johns Hopkins possibly being left out for the second year in a row. The Blue Jays were second-to-last at-large team in the field, only ahead of Harvard. Breathe easy, Blue Jays.
"The fact that we're back is not lost on the guys," said Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, whose team will play Virginia in a regular-season rematch and a pairing of storied programs that missed the NCAA tournament last year. "This is a proud program."
Best First-Round/Play-In Games
Albany (11-5) at No. 3 Loyola (15-1)
|Lyle Thompson, who tied the NCAA
Division I men's single-season points record of 114 on Saturday,
will draw a matchup with Loyola close defenseman Joe
Fletcher. (Rich Barnes)
Start up the hyperbole train now. Fastest game of the first round. One for the ages. A matchup not to miss.
Loyola will host Albany, the Thompson-led offensive juggernaut that no team in the tournament necessarily wants to play, but an opponent that will surely bring out the best in the Greyhounds and provide for an entertaining, if not electric atmosphere at Loyola's Ridley Athletic Complex on Saturday afternoon.
Both teams like to play fast.
"Our best offense is when we're running. That's been our personality over the last two years and I don't anticipate us slowing the ball down making it a six-on-six game," Toomey said. "I don't see Albany wanting to slow it down. They like chaos. I know that. ... We expect to see a team that wants to move the ball pretty quickly and find somebody on the backside or the inside probably with the name Thompson on the back of his jersey."
The biggest individual matchup to watch will be when Albany has the ball and Lyle Thompson looks to generate offense behind the cage. Loyola's standout defenseman Joe Fletcher will get him, leading a veteran Greyhounds defense that has been a strength for the team all year.
Lyle Thompson enters the game with 74 goals and 34 assists for 114 points this season, tied for the most ever in NCAA Division I men's history with UMBC's Steve Marohl, who did it in 1992. Miles Thompson isn't far behind with 108 points on 74 goals and 34 assists and Ty Thompson has 36 goals and 12 assists.
"Every time I have an opponent coming up, I look at stats and say, 'Who are we going to send Fletcher to?' and then [short-stick defensive midfielder Pat] Laconi and our pole," Toomey said. "Albany is so balanced. There's three of them that you have to cover. We have to make sure that we're prepared to have the right matchups and in-game make the right adjustments."
Richmond (6-10) at Air Force (10-5), 9 p.m. Wednesday
Honorable mention in the best matchup category goes to Air Force and Richmond in Wednesday's play-in round. The game will be played at 7 p.m. local time in Colorado Springs, Colo. The winner plays top-seed Duke on Sunday.
After everything Air Force has gone through this season — starting with the tragic death of coach Eric Seremet's wife in a car accident this fall, on the same weekend Air Force was supposed to be playing in an event outside Washington, D.C., but couldn't because of a government shutdown — it's a good story that the Falcons made the tournament for the first time since 1988. The team watched Sunday's selection show at Seremet's house Sunday with his two daughters.
"I love my wife and my kids, the kids in that locker room and the coaches," Seremet said Saturday after Air Force beat Fairfield for the ECAC title and NCAA AQ berth. "We've taken a solid step forward as program, and we're not done.
"We've been through a lot this year, not just with my situation," he said. "But situations with the office, situations with government shutting down. These kids ran practice in October [during the government shutdown]. If there were cameras at our practices in the fall, you would see our seniors stepping up to run practices when the coaches were not allowed to be at the academy working. .. You'd see a group of kids that are mature and are going to make great officers, and do great things when they graduate from the academy."
Air Force is probably more talented than you think, with a Major League Lacrosse draft pick in do-it-all midfielder Erik Smith (36 points and 69-for-118 on faceoffs) and scorer Mike Crampton (41 goals and 16 assists).
Their opponent, Richmond, made the tournament in its first year as a varsity program, by way of winning the Atlantic Sun automatic qualifier with an 8-7 win over High Point on Saturday.
"The first day we took the field, we definitely weren't talking about this," Richmond coach Dan Chemotti said. "We certainly weren't going to let the guys talk about it. For us to be here right now, we're all pretty excited."
There's a reason conference realignment is what it is, and in lacrosse, having access to an AQ berth proved its value for both of these programs. Ironically, Air Force doesn't have a conference home after this season's final ECAC campaign, and there were threats this year that budget cuts in the Air Force could eliminate the program all together.
Seeded Too High
No. 5 Denver (14-2)
|Denver was seeded fifth besides
have the lowest strength of schedule of any non play-in game
team. (Kevin P. Tucker)
Based on bracket projections here and elsewhere, Denver was slotted to be an unseeded team going on the road in the first round because of a relatively low strength of schedule compared to other teams in the running for a high seed.
The Pioneers' top-10 opponents' SOS was 27th, the lowest of any non play-in game participant, but Denver was tabbed the fifth overall seed in the tournament. This was the most surprising choice by the selection committee.
Even Denver coach Bill Tierney said Sunday night that the Pioneers thought they were close to the bubble, and that Denver will consider tinkering with its non-conference schedule in future years to ensure that they aren't again.
"We were nervous going in," to the Big East tournament, Tierney said. "You never know how the numbers work. We honestly thought we could have been out had we lost one of those two games."
In the end, Siedliski said the committee judged Denver similarly to Loyola with a high number of wins and weaker strength of schedule. Denver's 14-2 record (win-loss record is one of the selection criteria) and average RPI loss (2.5; best in the nation), to Duke and Penn, helped the Pioneers win a head-to-head battle with Notre Dame and other teams in committee's eyes.
"As it turned out, maybe our numbers were a little bit better than we had anticipated," Tierney said.
Seeded Too Low
North Carolina (10-4)
Denver as the fifth seed eventually forced the committee's hand to place unseeded North Carolina, of all teams, as the Pioneers' opponent. Notre Dame was seeded sixth, Maryland seventh and Virginia eighth and the committee sought to avoid conference matchups in the first round in addition to limiting flights across the board.
North Carolina was considered a top-10 team by the selection committee, Siedliski said. But the bracket won't reflect that. Working backwards from the AQ teams in the play-in games and then conference champions facing seeds in the first-round and evaluating the remaining at-large teams, the lowest-ranked at-large program in the field in the structure of the bracket was the Tar Heels. North Carolina was shipped from a possible theoretical 8-9 to 7-10 game all the way to facing the tournament's fifth seed.
Flight considerations also prevented Harvard, the last team in, from being sent to third-seeded Loyola, which is a little more than 400 miles away (the bus/flight barrier for the NCAA) and would have necessitated an extra flight in the field.
"Bracket integrity took a little bit of a hit," Siedliski said, "but considering the limitations we had to deal with, we had it pretty close."
That fact was not lost on observers.
"It almost appeared as if the committee wanted to break up the ACC. You could have made an argument that the ACC could have been in one through six or seven or eight," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said in response to a question about his team's strength of schedule. Virginia has played against 11 NCAA tournament teams this season. "There are some teams that are seeded a little bit higher, that I'm surprised [of]. Maybe down the road the coaches and the committee will have another discussion about how criteria are applied."
Cornell (11-4) at No. 7 Maryland (11-3)
Moving past a potential North Carolina upset of Denver, there is another first-round pairing that appeal to an underdog mentality: Cornell at No. 7 Maryland. The Big Red were also considered a top-10 team by the committee and face the Terps in College Park, Md.
Maryland has not been playing its best lacrosse as of late, scoring no more that six goals in pair of losses to Johns Hopkins and Notre Dame in the final four games of the season. Of course, the Terps also hung 12 on Notre Dame and finished the year with a 12-6 win over Navy in that stretch. Cornell, meanwhile, will be hungry for a win after ending the season with a one-goal loss to Penn in the Ivy League semifinals.
Drexel (12-4) at No. 4 Penn (11-3)
Speaking of Penn, the Quakers may be looked at by some as a weak fourth seed and most ripe for an upset. But Penn matches up well with Drexel. Penn's deep midfield allows them close out games in the fourth quarter. Drexel won't shy away from a fast-paced tempo, which could ultimately work in the Quakers' favor. Penn also can manage against Drexel's talented faceoff man, Nick Saputo, with their own in Danny Feeney.
That said, Drexel has won eight games in a row — the last two in overtime — and the program has now reached its first-ever NCAA tournament. They are playing with house money. They'll head to Franklin Field, an old house that Penn hasn't played a home NCAA tournament game in since 1988.
Best Potential Matchup
There's myriad of possibilities, but a few potential quarterfinal matchups jump out: Syracuse-Maryland, Duke-Virginia and Denver-Penn, which would all be rematches of regular season games.
There is also the possibility for a Duke-Syracuse rematch of the national title game. If so, it would be the third time the teams meet this season. In an era that has been defined by parity, and in a year where it appears nine or 10 teams are viable candidates for an NCAA title, wouldn't that be something? Both teams began the season 1-2 in the LM rankings and are the top seeds for the NCAA tournament.
Don't Be Surprised If...
An unseeded team makes the final four or the national title game. It's happened in each of the last four years: Cornell (2013), Maryland (2012 and 2011) and Notre Dame (2010), with the Terps and Irish each reaching the title game and losing in the final.
Could it be North Carolina's turn this year? The Tar Heels weren't able to get over the quarterfinal hump last season. If they could do it this year, it would mark the program's first final four appearance since 1993, more than 20 years ago.
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