May 13, 2011

Eight Things I Think About These NCAAs

by Gary Lambrecht |

A lot of people have Kyle Wharton and third-seeded Johns Hopkins on upset alert with former Blue Jays offensive coordinator Seth Tierney's Hofstra team coming to town. Gary Lambrecht is not buying it.

Some thoughts as the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament prepares to launch:

1. The quality is subject to question.

From top to bottom, this year's bracket is not the strongest since the NCAA expanded its postseason event to 16 teams in 2003. Six teams entering this year's fray have at least five losses, while nine teams have shouldered at least four defeats. Conference champions/automatic qualifiers Delaware (12-6), Hartford (11-6) and Siena (13-4) account for some of that, and some may point to increased parity to explain the dilution. I think the other truth is that overall quality of the sport simply dipped this year.

2. Notre Dame is the most vulnerable top-four seed.

It's amazing what two bad weeks can do to a team's momentum. No. 4 seed Notre Dame was sailing along as the last of the unbeaten, before it ran into a buzz saw named Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on April 30. Then, the Irish got out-played for the first 50 minutes against a younger, more athletic North Carolina team, before rallying late and losing in OT. In both defeats, the opposition's speed, great transition and excellent shooters did in the Irish. Hmmm, that sounds a lot like fifth-seeded Duke, which should see Notre Dame in the quarterfinals in a rematch of last year's title game.

3. Don't be shocked if it's not close at Homewood.

A lot is being made of unseeded Hofstra's chances to pull off an upset at No. 3 seed Johns Hopkins, where former Blue Jays offensive coordinator Seth Tierney brings the Pride (13-2) on Saturday to open the postseason against the team that dropped Hofstra from its schedule this year. I'm not buying it. The Blue Jays are quick, healthy, dialed in too well defensively, scoring in bunches too effectively, and top face-off man Matt Dolente is controlling momentum too consistently. And remember, Hofstra is 0-for-2 against a Delaware team that Hopkins destroyed, 18-5, on Feb. 22, back when the Blue Jays were a mere shell of the team they have become.

4. Delaware has earned a reputation as road warrior.

The unseeded Delaware Blue Hens love the road. As the fourth seed in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, Delaware interrupted an eight-hour, roundtrip bus ride by knocking off top-seeded Hofstra, then beat UMass in the middle of a 12-hour roundtrip to win the CAA and gain an AQ to the NCAAs. On Thursday, the Blue Hens were bound for Durham, nearly seven hours to the south, where they will take a crack at defending national champion Duke on Saturday. "We have a lot of upperclassmen who understand what's going on this time of year, and we travel really well. But we're running out of movies [to watch on the bus]," Delaware coach Bob Shillinglaw said.

5. Stop whining and hit the road, Terps.

After dropping its regular-season finale to Colgate – and missing injured attackman Grant Catalino and midfielder Joe Cummings really hurt – the unseeded Maryland Terrapins got what they deserved. The Terps (10-4) must beat no. 8 seed North Carolina in Chapel Hill, for the honor of facing top-seeded Syracuse in the quarterfinals. Maryland has not beaten a high-quality team outside of the ACC, and its RPI (12) and strength of schedule (12) proved costly on Selection Sunday. That said, the Terps should feel good about traveling. They have done most of their best work on the road. At home, they blew big leads in meltdowns against Carolina and Hopkins, before suffering that bad setback against Colgate.

5. Altitude, shmaltitude.

I'm sick of hearing about the mile-high air giving the sixth-seeded Denver Pioneers such an advantage this weekend against Villanova. If I could sustain a brisk pace on a strenuous hike of six miles at more than 8,000 feet in my early 40s, then a bunch of Division I athletes in prime physical condition can manage things at 5,000 feet just fine. These aren't 300-pound NFL linemen pounding each other for 60 to 70 snaps. If Denver loses, it will be because Nova killed its transition game, covered attackmen Alex Demopoulos and Mark Matthews like gloves, and controlled things between the boxes with ground ball eater and turnover machine Brian Karalunas – not because the Wildcats somehow maintained their wind in the fourth quarter.

6. No one is afraid of Virginia.

Unseeded Bucknell, in the tournament for the first time since 2001, must be sensing the kill, as it prepares for Sunday's game in Charlottesville against No. 7 seed Virginia (9-5). The Cavaliers are not exactly helpless, not with attackmen Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet a threat to light up the scoreboard. But Virginia, which will be Bratton-less this week – Rhamel remains suspended while Shamel has finally been kicked off the team – still is vulnerable on defense and is not exactly playing with swagger. With the best record in school history, the Bison (14-2) are playing top-notch defense, sharing the ball extremely well and are dangerously confident. If Bucknell gets by the Wahoos, it will give Cornell a battle in the quarterfinals.

7. Last men standing will be Syracuse and Cornell. And then...

Syracuse (14-1) has too many outstanding, driven seniors to be denied its third Memorial Day victory in four years, and last year's first-round stunner against Army lingers very much in the rear-view mirror. Second-seed Cornell (13-2) has enough depth and speed, and the otherworldly Rob Pannell has been virtually unsolvable for two months. But, after Cornell survives a nasty, dust-up with Hopkins in the semifinals, Pannell will meet his match in Syracuse senior defenseman John Lade, and the Orange will break Big Red hearts once again to win it all.

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