Weekend Watch: Blue Bloods on the Brink
1. A big weekend for Virginia, UNC and Duke
I have done enough Bracketology projections over the past couple seasons to know that every game matters, and to know when teams might be closer to the bubble than they want to be.
As a player or coach, it is probably better to not pay attention, especially in late March — just do your best, win your games and/or conference tournament, and let the chips fall where they may.
But for the rest of us, it's hard to ignore the storylines that are shaping up relative to May Madness, even still two months from Memorial Day weekend.
If the 2016 NCAA tournament field, as it is in most cases, is a reflection of the regular season, why shouldn't we expect a similar theme to what has been February and March Madness (lacrosse-style)?
Consider Virginia, now with a 3-5 record and 0-2 in the ACC, and, less likely, ACC brethren Duke (6-4) and North Carolina (5-3). They may well be in danger of missing the tournament all together. The one tournament selection criteria that would wipe all of them out is finishing with a below-.500 record. Depending how the rest of the year goes, they could be squarely on the bubble.
The Cavaliers host No. 5 Johns Hopkins (4-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday. The last two times the programs have met in Charlottesville, the Blue Jays have dominated by a combined 18 goals. But Virginia also has won the last two regular season meetings in overtime, once in Charlottesville on March 22, 2014 and last year in Baltimore. Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala, fighting a back infection, wasn't at practice on Thursday and it's unclear if he'll make the trip to Charlottesville.
After its tilt with Hopkins, Virginia's opponents are VMI, Richmond, North Carolina, Duke and Georgetown. It's safe to say one win will result from that stretch, but how many more?
The Tar Heels head to Byrd Stadium to take on No. 7 Maryland (4-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday to face a Terps' team that may be finding its stride. North Carolina's unofficial Rating Percentage Index (the key NCAA tournament metric) is 21st in the country, according to LaxPower.com. The Tar Heels haven't even played an ACC game yet and they finish the regular season with four straight in what's typically been considered the nation's tougest guantlet.
Then there is Duke. After being upset by Richmond, word out of Durham was that the Blue Devils didn't take the opponent as seriously as they should, and lost at the end of a tough stretch of four games in 10 days. Understandable. But they certainly shouldn't have been overlooking Air Force, which had won six straight and walloped fellow SoCon star High Point three days earlier, and High Point beat Virginia earlier in the year ... and you get it, madness.
The Blue Devils open ACC play this weekend at home against No. 6 Syracuse (5-1). Go ahead and predict a Duke blowout based on their two regular season matchups since both have been in the ACC: Syracuse 19, Syracuse 7 in 2015; Duke 21, Syracuse 7 in 2014.
For Duke, this is the first of four straight ACC regular season games, then it finishes with Marquette and Boston U., two start-up darlings that have been in the Top 20 each of the last two seasons. No. 20 Boston U. just beat No. 16 Harvard on Tuesday night.
The mention of Marquette and BU raises the thought of "How is this all happening?"
Many coaches, including Marquette's Joe Amplo, say it is a reflection of only 70 NCAA Division I men's teams existing despite continued growth in youth participation and high school programs, and more D-I caliber players across the country and in Canada.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, from 2009 to 2014, a total of 551 schools added boys' lacrosse programs. In the same span, 10 NCAA Division I men's programs played their first seasons.
"There are three, four or five teams that didn't even exist five years ago that are taking up spots in the Top 20," Amplo said. "There are not enough spots for kids that are good lacrosse players to go to school, so there are good players on every roster."
Bryant coach Mike Pressler, formerly of Duke, recently told Eamon McAnaney the same thing on the "Time, Room, Bullseye Podcast." The Bulldogs beating Syracuse in the Carrier Dome a few years ago is an NCAA tournament upset reminiscent of Middle Tennessee State over Michigan State in hoops this year.
"You're seeing more quality across the board and the scores are bearing that out," Pressler said, and indeed, not even considering the bevy of upsets against the the brand-names, 22.1 percent of all Division I men's games this season have been decided by one goal.
Another big picture idea: Will parity result in anything other than increased entertainment value — did you hear about that upset Tuesday? — for the dedicated lacrosse fan or those involved as player, parent or coach?
Enter the early recruiting discussion if you dare. It's been said many times before that if enough recruits do not pan out and top teams do not enjoy as much success as they are used to or expected, that that may stem the tide of junior, then sophomore, then freshman, and now eighth-grade commitments.
Loyola's national championship win in 2012 was supposed to be a sign teams could win a national title with key players that were under-recruited and/or from non-traditional areas, like and Joe Fletcher, Eric Lusby, Scott Ratliff, Mike Sawyer, and Justin Ward. But in the years since then, the same teams as usual have typically populated the Top 10.
Of course, a deeper dive, comparing roster makeups of the so-called elite and mid-majors, is necessary before making any conclusions.
But could the chaos of 2016 contribute to changing the dynamic? If Virginia, Duke and North Carolina — or even two out of three — miss the NCAA tournament or are too close to the bubble for comfort, that might register a bit harder.
"Those big boys who do the early recruiting, because they are not going to be successful as they had hoped, are going to start stealing our recruits," Amplo said.
"It is a major reason why this is all happening," Pressler said of early recruiting. "Schools like ours, Richmond and High Point, all these players that are late-bloomers, that don't really blossom until their junior year, are out there and they are at times better than the freshmen and sophomores that committed early and maybe didn't develop."
But also, of course, each of these ACC blue bloods on the brink (Duke hasn't been considered such as long as the other two but is now), plus Notre Dame and Syracuse, have the ACC tournament, and the typical RPI metric boost-included, to fall back on and the league's AQ qualifier.
The cart may be in front of the horse.
But after 2016, the ACC loses its AQ bid as a result of Maryland leaving from the Big Ten a few seasons ago. That dropped the ACC below the NCAA threshold of six teams needed for conference AQ status. NCAA policy lets a league hold on to AQ status for three seasons should it dip below six teams, but not longer than that.
This relationship status is complicated. But one thing is for sure: the blue bloods would do well to live in the moment this weekend and from here on out. It will add up come Selection Sunday.
North Carolina's unofficial RPI, a key NCAA tournament selection metric, is outside the Top 20 right now. (John Strohsacker)
2. New bloods
"New" in this sense doesn't necessarily mean brand new, but newer compared to the blue bloods discussed above. Denver and Notre Dame have established themselves as the elite over almost the last decade of college lacrosse.
The second-ranked Irish (5-1) take their first bus trip of the year to Columbus for a Midwest battle against Ohio State (5-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday while top-ranked Denver (7-0) plays Penn State (5-3) noon Saturday at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
The latter matchup is part of the 8th annual Patriot Cup in Dallas Texas. The day will feature six games in total, including Texas high school games and an MCLA meeting between Oklahoma and Texas State. The games also will raise money to support to HEADstrong Foundation.
3. Eye on the SoCon
In the very likely three-way battle for SoCon supremacy and its tournament AQ, Air Force has the most recent leg up with a nine-goal win over visiting High Point in Colorado Springs last Saturday and becoming the latest SoCon team to beat Duke on Tuesday. Richmond was the other. High Point (4-4) faces Richmond (6-2) at noon Saturday. Air Force (7-2) is at Detroit (1-5).
Thanks to twitter nation and Brian Horton for pointing out Air Force is 12-1 versus SoCon teams since 2014.
4. Others of note
Princeton (2-4) at No. 3 Yale (6-0), Noon Saturday
Cornell (3-3) at Penn (4-2), Noon Saturday
No. 17 Bucknell (5-3) at No. 14 Loyola (5-3), 1 p.m. Saturday
Fairfield (4-5) at No. 8 Villanova (5-1), 1 p.m. Saturday
No. 13 Navy (5-2) at Lehigh (3-1), 3 p.m. Saturday
The Terps, as they often have under John Tillman, are figuring out their offensive identity as the second half the season approaches. Tillman talked before the season about developing a second midfield, among other things, in an effort to prevail instead of coming up short in the two-game-in-three-day-format of final four weekend. Maryland has lost three times in the NCAA championship in five seasons under Tillman, and scored a combined 15 goals in those losses.
To that point, the Terps don't refer to their midfield lines as first or second, according to Tillman, but as "both midfields." One consists of Bryan Cole, Henry West and Connor Kelly. Another is Tim Rotanz, Lucas Gradinger and Pat Young, who have compiled 20 points in the last four games.
Tillman said Maryland would like to consistently play three lines, all in an effort to "go where teams want to go." The move of Colin Heacock (10 goals, six assists) to attack seems to have led to some consistent offensive chances, and he and Matt Rambo (14 goals, one assist) work well together. Plus, freshman Austin Henningsen is ninth-best nationally with a 64.7 win percentage.
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