May 10, 2011

Bracket Breakdown: NCAA Division I Women

by Matt DaSilva | LaxMagazine.com


Fourth-seeded Florida will be on upset alert with Stanford coming to Gainesville for a first-round game.

© Zach Heffner/Verdict Photography

Bracket Announcements: MD1 | WD1 | MD2 | WD2 | MD3 | WD3
Bracket Breakdowns: MD1 | WD1 | MD2 | WD2 | MD3 | WD3

Defending national champion Maryland earned the top seed in the 2011 NCAA Division I women's lacrosse tournament, pacing five Atlantic Coast Conference teams to qualify.

The fifth of those teams, Boston College, is also one of two teams making their first NCAA tournament appearances – the other being seventh-seeded Albany.

Here's a more comprehensive breakdown of the 16-team field.

Last Team In

Boston College
After the automatic qualifiers and play-in game winners (Navy, Maryland, Princeton, James Madison, Stanford, Massachusetts, Loyola, Northwestern and Albany) and the obvious at-large selections (North Carolina, Florida, Duke, Penn), three at-large spots were up for grabs among Boston College, Dartmouth, Virginia, and likely Syracuse and Penn State. Despite its 9-8 record, UVA's strength of schedule (second) was too good. Dartmouth's win over No. 1 Maryland and No. 14 RPI justified its inclusion. That left BC, Syracuse and Penn State. The fact that Harvard, a team the Eagles defeated during the regular season, upended Dartmouth in the Ivy League semifinals likely helped BC. As did its 12-6 win over Virginia in April, which head coach Bowen Holden called the turning point of the season.

First Team Out

Syracuse
The Orange is proof that loading up the schedule means nothing without a win to hang your hat on. Sure, Syracuse beat Loyola in the regular season. But it also lost to Georgetown in the regular season and then Loyola in the Big East semifinals to nullify the gains. Though its strength of schedule was 10th and its RPI 16th -- within percentage points of Dartmouth and BC -- the Orange lost head-to-head to Dartmouth and was lambasted by a team (Virginia) that BC beat. After Syracuse, Penn State was likely the next team out.

Snubbed?

Stanford and North Carolina
Both of these teams got raw draws.

Stanford, despite its 16-2 record and MPSF championship, came in 10th in terms of RPI. An unseeded bid makes sense in that regard. But the Cardinal's RPI was still better than Princeton's and Dartmouth's, unseeded teams that got more favorable first-round matchups. Stanford must travel to the Swamp in Gainesville, where fourth-seeded Florida has not lost this year. Blame geography. With Stanford needing to fly no matter where it went and Florida being a flight away for any foe, it made sense to spare one flight and pair these two together.

Geographic concerns may have also been at play when third-seeded North Carolina drew Virginia. How else do you explain sixth-seeded Loyola getting a cushier first-round draw (Massachusetts)? The Greyhounds got a gift, paid for by the Tar Heels.

Best First-Round Matchup

Penn at No. 5 Duke

This is a rematch of the teams' April 29 regular season encounter in which Penn upset Duke 13-10 at Drexel's Vidas Field. Meredith Cain was the difference in that game with a breakout, three-goal performance. She also snagged five draw controls, taking advantage of the fact that Duke's top center draw specialist, Kat Thomas, left the game with a severely sprained ankle. Thomas has not played or practiced since, and Blue Devils head coach Kerstin Kimel called her a game-time decision.

Upset Watch

Stanford at No. 4 Florida
The Gators have been invincible in Gainesville this year, but the Cardinal has shown its mettle on the road -- most recently April 24, when Stanford pushed Northwestern to the limit in a 12-11 loss suffered on a last-minute goal.

Easiest Title Route

Northwestern
The second-seeded Wildcats' half of the bracket looks almost unfairly easy compared to top-seeded Maryland's half. Boston College, Dartmouth, Albany, Loyola, Massachusetts and Virginia are all a discernable notch below Northwestern. Compare that to Maryland, which after Navy must face some combination of Princeton, James Madison, Duke, Penn, Stanford and Florida to reach the championship game.

Five Burning Questions

1. Will injuries catch up to Duke and Maryland?
Duke can't seem to stay healthy. The Blue Devils were without star midfielder Sarah Bullard for several games during one midseason stretch. Thomas' current injury has an even greater impact due to her ability to secure possessions off the draw. Additionally, defender Bridget Nolan is out with a broken wrist, Maddy Morrissey -- at one point Duke's first midfielder off the bench -- tore her ACL and defender Carolina Spearman just recently returned from injury.

Maryland, of course, wants national preseason player of the year Karri Ellen Johnson back on the field. But she has not played since suffering a concussion in a game against Towson at the end of March. Each passing game without KEJ in the lineup makes you wonder whether she will return at all this year. Less publicized is that Brandi Jones has not played since the Terps' ACC championship game victory over North Carolina. She has also been out with a concussion.

2. Did a scheduling conflict ruin Albany's perfect season?
The Great Danes finished 17-0 and as the America East champion to earn their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, and to do so as the seventh seed, which would normally warrant home game. But due to commencement ceremonies, Albany is unable to host and will therefore travel to Dartmouth for its first-round game. With two teams this evenly matched, home field advantage could spell the difference.

3. Does Navy even have a chance against Maryland?
Well, yeah, technically. But no, not really. The intrigue is there, nonetheless, with Cindy Timchal, the NCAA's all-time winningest coach, returning for the first time to College Park, where she racked up most of those wins and eight NCAA titles. Maryland and Navy have not met since Timchal took the Navy job after the 2006 season.

4. Is Princeton back?
The Tigers ended Penn's Ivy League reign by beating the Quakers in both the regular season and conference playoffs. Interestingly enough, a third encounter could be in the offing if they beat eighth-seeded James Madison and Penn beats Duke. Princeton is in this position just one year after going 6-10 in 2010, its first losing season in 23 years. James Madison defeated Princeton 10-5 earlier this season. But these Tigers are finding ways to win possessions and cash in on them, unlike in that game.

5. Can Florida find its groove again?
The Gators surely looked like final four material during their 14-game winning steak. But then came the shocking stumble at Cornell, another tough win over Ohio State and a loss to Northwestern in the ALC championship game in which Kitty Cullen was held without a goal and they surrendered a three-goal lead in the second half. Florida looks beatable again.


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