May 4, 2011

Lambrecht: Expect Ho-Hum Selection Sunday

by Gary Lambrecht |

It would take an Army upset of Johns Hopkins, a Colgate upset of Maryland or a conference tournament collapse to make the NCAA Division I tournament selection anything more than a snoozer, writes Gary Lambrecht.

With the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament fast approaching, you might think this week would carry its share of pre-Selection Sunday intrigue. You might expect a host of bubble teams to be milling about the landscape, threatening to turn the tournament field sideways amid some juicy controversy surrounding average RPI losses or strength of schedule or head-to-head performances.

But here's the boring little secret, as the regular season chugs toward the finish line: The good and very good teams have separated from the pack so much that, barring a few major upsets in the five conference tournaments being played over the next few days, the unveiling of the tournament's 16-team field on Sunday is shaping up to be among the more unremarkable in recent memory.

Remember last year's uproar, when Hofstra got in, despite failing to qualify for its own league tournament, and Notre Dame got in, despite having seven losses? (The committee's wisdom was proven on Memorial Day, when the Irish pushed titlist Duke to the limit in overtime.) Compared to the hand-wringing that followed the 2010 bracket announcement, this year's postmortem promises to be a snore.

Here is what's coming. Six automatic qualifiers will go to The Show, by virtue of their conference tournament titles. Bucknell (14-2) already is in, thanks to its Patriot League championship last weekend. More AQs will come from the Colonial Athletic Association, Ivy League, ECAC and Metro Atlantic Athletic and America East conferences.

That leaves 10 at-large bids to fill out the tournament field. Nine bids already are virtually sealed. Those schools include Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame, Maryland, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Villanova and Penn – assuming the Quakers don't do anything shocking in the Ivy League tournament, such as taking down a superior Cornell team to win the thing and thereby knocking the Big Red into at-large territory.

The only hint of suspense this week – other than the remote possibilities that Colgate upsets Maryland to get in and deny Harvard, or Army stuns Hopkins to get into the at-large discussion – comes from the conference tournaments. And that whiff of suspense is fleeting.

The MAAC champion, likely Siena, doesn't really count in this discussion, since the Saints will be sentenced to swift, unkind justice at top-seeded Syracuse in the first round. And the Big East, the sport's best conference this year, led by the 'Cuse and Notre Dame, has no league tournament or AQ.

That brings us to the three guilty parties. Their names are America East, CAA and ECAC. Each of these leagues has a prohibitive, conference tournament favorite. That's because each of these leagues has shown itself to be flatly mediocre, and even its top dogs have enough issues that will not allow all of them admittance to the NCAAs, should they falter this weekend.

The only school with a realistic chance at upsetting top-seeded and host Denver (RPI-7, strength of schedule-28th) in the ECAC tournament is Loyola (RPI-16, SOS-15). But the Greyhounds, who have under-achieved enough to be firmly on the bubble, must contend with both the high altitude and their obsession with it. Then they must beat a Bill-Tierney coached team that is playing much better than the Pioneers were when they spanked Loyola in Baltimore on March 16.

If the extremely unlikely happens at Mile High, Denver still gets in to the dance with an at-large ticket.

Not so regarding Stony Brook (9-3, 5-0). The Seawolves, who recovered from a loss to 3-10 Towson and have played solid defense of late, are the best of a bad America East, which is a one-bid league. And if top seed and host Stony Brook (RPI-12, SOS-25) stumbles against UMBC or Hartford in the AE final, the Seawolves get to stay on Long Island and stew in it for the summer. That simply will not happen.

In the CAA, there is top seed and host Hofstra (RPI-10, SOS-38!) and then, there is everyone else. The Pride (13-1, 5-1) has battled admirably through a list of injuries at midfield. They have had their share of scoring droughts, but have recovered tremendously from that early-season loss to Delaware and have out-scored their CAA opponents, 63-30. Still, with that flimsy SOS, Hofstra might need to win it to get in it.

As for the Ivy League tournament, I've drawn up a bunch of scenarios, and none suggest that Cornell (11-2, 6-0) will lose this weekend, not after winning the regular season standings by two games and resembling a steamroller lately while doing it, not with Rob Pannell at the controls. The only question this weekend is can Harvard (RPI-20, SOS-27) do enough damage, say by knocking off Penn in the semifinals, to make a serious case for the Ivy's second, at-large bid?

Not exactly the stuff of intrigue, is it?

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