April 26, 2012

Bracketology: Who's In, Out and On The Bubble?

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Duke's strong showing in April has vaulted the Blue Devils to the top of NCAA tournament contention.
© Matt Riley

Can you believe it? Selection Sunday, May 6, is less than two weeks away. But at this juncture, there's almost as much clarity as there are questions about who will fill out the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament bracket. That's what makes it fun.

The way we see it, roughly 40 teams could make an at-large case — or qualify — for the postseason.

Of the 16 tournament slots, seven go to teams representing conferences with automatic NCAA qualifying berths (America East, Big East, CAA, ECAC, Ivy League, MAAC and Patriot League), four will go to the ACC teams (Duke, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia), and one will likely go to Johns Hopkins. Essentially, that means there are 29 teams in the hunt for four at-large spots. Conference tournaments and key remaining games should help decide some of the difficult decisions, but it's not going to be easy for the selection committee.

So who's in? Who's out? Who still has a chance? Here's our best guess — combining projection with how things currently stand — applying the NCAA selection criteria: strength of schedule, RPI, quality wins, head-to-head results, etc.

Welcome to Bracketology...

(Note: Strength of schedule and RPI are courtesy of LaxPower, which uses the NCAA formulas, as of Thursday morning.)

The Seeds

1. Duke (13-3, at-large)

Strength of schedule: 6
RPI: 2
Wins of note: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina (twice), Syracuse
Remaining games: Friday vs. Denver (Mile High Classic at Sports Authority Field)

Duke lost three of its first six games, including a pair to top national contenders Loyola and Notre Dame, but the Blue Devils have compiled the best body of work: Second-best RPI, sixth-best strength of schedule. They also have the most top-20 wins of any team in the country, including three straight against ACC foes: Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina.

If Duke beats Denver on Friday in the Mile High Classic, John Danowski's squad should secure the No. 1 overall seed, but that won't be an easy task. A short week after playing two physical games in three days at the ACC Tournament, combined with cross-country travel, needing to adjust to the altitude, playing at 10 p.m. Eastern and facing a team desperate for a signature victory? That's a challenging formula.

2. Loyola (12-0, ECAC automatic qualifier)

Strength of schedule: 29
RPI: 1
Wins of note: Duke, Fairfield, Ohio State, Denver
Remaining games: Saturday vs. Johns Hopkins, ECAC Tournament

As Gary Lambrecht wrote Wednesday, "Loyola has been the sport's most consistently entertaining team to watch this year." And consistently the most consistent. A 13-8 defeat of Duke in early March, plus conference wins over tournament contenders Denver, Fairfield and Ohio State give the Greyhounds a nearly bulletproof resume.

Currently the top-ranked team in the RPI, Loyola can strengthen its case to be the No. 1 overall seed with a win over Johns Hopkins (plus, a rock-solid ECAC Tournament). Saturday's game between Charles Street corridor rivals is already sold out. Regardless of remaining results, the Hounds are a virtual lock to host a first-round game.

3. Notre Dame (10-1, Big East automatic qualifier)

Strength of schedule: 11
RPI: 3
Wins of note: Duke, Villanova, Denver, Ohio State, Drexel
Remaining games: Saturday vs. Syracuse, Big East Tournament

A February one-goal overtime loss to Penn State is the only blemish on the Fighting Irish's record — which came one week after they upset Duke — and they have five top-20 wins. It's not out of the question that Notre Dame would be rewarded with the top overall seed; it could make a strong case with a victory over Syracuse and a Big East Tournament championship.

Quick history lesson: The last national No. 1 overall seed to win it all? Virginia in 2006. And each of the last four top-ranked teams haven't even played in the championship game. Notre Dame was unranked in 2010 when it lost 6-5 to Duke in the final round.

4. UMass (12-0, CAA automatic qualifier)

Strength of schedule: 23
RPI: 4
Wins of note: Penn State, Bucknell, Ohio State, Drexel
Remaining games: Friday at Delaware, CAA Tournament

No disrespect to the Minutemen, whose biggest win came in overtime against RPI No. 12 Penn State, but their strength of schedule hurts them a bit. UMass is just one win away from matching the school record for victories, and it has a chance to set a new mark in the CAA Tournament, for which it has secured the top seed. The Minutemen were unseeded in the 2006 NCAA Tournament when they made a title game appearance against Virginia.

Even with losses to Delaware and the CAA Tournament, UMass should be safe; it compares favorably to 2011 Hofstra, for example. But if that happens, could the CAA be a three-big league? Drexel, Towson and Hofstra have the most to gain by winning the conference AQ.

5. North Carolina (10-5, at-large)

Strength of schedule: 5
RPI: 7
Wins of note: Virginia, Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Penn State, Princeton
Remaining games: May 5 vs. Michigan

Where would the Tar Heels rank if they had beaten Duke in the ACC Championship? In that case, despite having five losses, no other team could claim the quantity and quality of wins on Carolina's slate. Still, five top-20 victories — including Hopkins, Maryland and Virginia since the end of March — will hold up well in the selection process.

An early-season loss to Lehigh that once appeared to weaken the Heels' resume now doesn't hurt, though a 10-6 loss to Penn does. The only other trip ups? Duke (twice) and Virginia.

6. Maryland (8-4, at-large)

Strength of schedule: 6
RPI: 5
Wins of note: Duke, Johns Hopkins, Villanova
Remaining games: Saturday vs. Bellarmine, May 5 at Colgate

Though the Terrapins' seven-game non-conference schedule hasn't been particularly challenging so far, wins over Johns Hopkins and Villanova were key. They went 1-3 in the ACC with a regular-season win against Duke.

Even though Maryland lost to Virginia head-to-head, the Terps get a slight edge in seeding for their strength of schedule and RPI. Plus, a game with RPI No. 10 Colgate to close out the regular season could give an added boost the day before Selection Sunday, should the Terps win.

7. Virginia (10-3, at-large)

Strength of schedule: 10
RPI: 6
Wins of note: Maryland, North Carolina, Cornell, Ohio State, Syracuse
Remaining games: Friday vs. Penn (Mile High Classic at Sports Authority Field)

Think anyone in Charlottesville would be upset if the Cavaliers get the No. 7 seed, the same spot they occupied during last year's run to the national title? Though two or three weeks ago, Virginia would have been the prohibitive favorite for top slot before losses to Johns Hopkins, Duke and North Carolina. Defeats of Cornell and Syracuse earlier in the year don't look as impressive now as they did then. An argument could be made for Virginia to rank ahead of Maryland, which the Cavaliers beat head-to-head.

Friday's game against Penn could be interesting. The Quakers aren't in the running for the Ivy League. Will they pack it in? Or will they treat Virginia like their biggest game of the season?

8. Johns Hopkins (9-3, at-large)

Strength of schedule: 14
RPI: 8
Wins of note: Virginia, Princeton, Syracuse
Remaining games: Saturday at Loyola, May 5 vs. Army

After losing three of its last four games, Hopkins is on shaky footing to host a first-round game, though a win against RPI No. 2 Loyola on Saturday would help ease those concerns. Hopkins earned the eighth seed in 2009 with an 8-4 record, and at 9-3 this year the Blue Jays have three top-20 victories — at least as many, or more than, every other contender.

The Rest

Depending on how Lehigh finishes in this weekend's Patriot League tournament, the Mountain Hawks can be in the running for a first-round home game, predicts Matt Forman.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Lehigh (12-2, Patriot League automatic qualifier)

Strength of schedule: 32
RPI: 9
Wins of note: North Carolina, Penn State, Bucknell
Remaining games: Friday vs. Army (Patriot League semifinals)

Lehigh's one-goal overtime loss to Colgate gave the Raiders the top seed and the right to host the Patriot League Tournament, but Lehigh still has the slightly better body of work. The Mountain Hawks' only other loss was to Villanova, which gave them a 10-goal wake up call in February.

If Lehigh wins the Patriot League Tournament, it would have a chance to earn a top-eight national seed and host a first-round game. Plus, Lehigh's closest contenders —Hopkins and Colgate — both lost to Navy, while the Mountain Hawks beat the Mids.

History lesson: Every national seed since 2009 has finished in the top 10 of the RPI.

Colgate (11-2, at-large)

Strength of schedule: 38
RPI: 10
Wins of note: Lehigh, Fairfield, Bucknell
Remaining games: Friday vs. Bucknell (Patriot League semifinals), May 5 vs. Maryland

Colgate has positioned itself with wins over Fairfield, Bucknell and Lehigh in the past month, the last of which allowed it to host the Patriot League Tournament in the confines of Hamilton, N.Y. The Raiders' losses were to Dartmouth and Navy, but they're still in good shape. After its conference tournament, Colgate's hosts Maryland in its season finale, with a chance to leave one last impression for the Committee, although a win in College Park the last week of last season didn't get them in.

Cornell (9-2, Ivy League automatic qualifier)

Strength of schedule: 25
RPI: 15
Wins of note: Denver, Syracuse
Remaining games: Saturday at Princeton, Ivy League Tournament

Cornell's chances of hosting a first-round game took a hit when it was upset by Brown on Senior Day last weekend. But the Big Red could re-stake its claim to such an opportunity quickly, as they face Princeton on Saturday, and possibly a second time in the Ivy League Tournament; Saturday's winner will decide which team hosts the conference championship. It's perfect timing for Rob Pannell to return for Cornell, which was seeded second nationally in 2011.

Penn State (8-5, at-large)

Strength of schedule: 3
RPI: 12
Wins of note: Notre Dame, Villanova, Ohio State
Remaining games: Saturday vs. Hofstra, CAA Tournament

It's almost funny how similar Penn State and Villanova are, at least in SOS and RPI. But the advantage goes to the Nittany Lions for their 13-8 win over the Wildcats. Plus, all five of Penn State's five losses were to RPI top-20 foes. And the Nits' greatest bounty? A 4-3 overtime defeat at Notre Dame. Barring a major shakeup in the conference tournaments — in the CAA, but also the Big East and Patriot League — Penn State looks like a tournament lock in Jeff Tambroni's second season.

Villanova (8-5, at-large)

Strength of schedule: 2
RPI: 13
Wins of note: Lehigh, Bucknell, Syracuse, Drexel
Remaining games: Saturday at Providence, Big East Tournament

When Lacrosse Magazine ranked Villanova No. 10 in our preseason poll — the Wildcats' first ever appearance in the top 10 — coach Mike Corrado said: "It's nice to be talked about that way. It also presents a different kind of challenge." Consider it met. Villanova is 0-2 against the RPI top-10 but has four top-20 wins, including three to start the season over Lehigh, Bucknell and Drexel. Later, the Wildcats topped Syracuse in what was considered a must-win for the Orange. Now, they'll get a second shot at Notre Dame, but Nova should make the tournament either way.

Fairfield (11-2, at-large)

Strength of schedule: 30
RPI: 11
Wins of note: Denver
Remaining games: Saturday vs. Ohio State, ECAC Tournament

As junior attackman Sam Snow said after Fairfield downed Denver 9-8, "We're without a doubt a program on the rise, we've got something to be proud of now. People have to watch out for Fairfield." Indeed. The Stags will face Ohio State in back-to-back weeks. Winning both of those games would only strengthen their stance, or splitting them would at least keep them under consideration. Currently, Fairfield looks like the last at-large qualifier — a precarious position, given the shakeup that could ensue.

Stony Brook (4-9, America East automatic qualifier)

Strength of schedule: 33
RPI: 41
Wins of note: Delaware, UMBC
Remaining games: Saturday at Albany, America East Tournament

Someone has to win the America East, even though only UMBC has a chance to finish with a record better than .500 (and the conference's top RPI). Stony Brook beat the Retrievers earlier this month, so the Seawolves get the nod — for now — but Hartford and Albany are also in the hunt.

Siena (9-3, MAAC automatic qualifier)

Strength of schedule: 55
RPI: 36
Wins of note: Stony Brook
Remaining games: Saturday at Manhattan, MAAC Tournament

The Saints are undefeated in the MAAC and will host the conference tournament. It's a one-bid league.

First Two Out

Princeton's tilt with Cornell on Saturday and the Ivy League tournament will determine its postseason destiny.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Princeton (9-3)

Strength of schedule: 18
RPI: 14
Wins of note: Villanova
Remaining games: Saturday vs. Cornell, Ivy League Tournament

The Tigers are currently in sole possession of first place in the Ivy, so it's almost unfair to have them on the outside looking in. But with close losses to Johns Hopkins, North Carolina and Syracuse, Princeton needs to add another signature win to its resume to improve its chances of bursting the bubble — it can do so against Cornell on Saturday, or in the conference tournament. The Tigers' biggest win thus far came on the road against Villanova.

Bucknell (9-6)

Strength of schedule: 17
RPI: 17
Wins of note: Penn State, Drexel
Remaining games: Friday vs. Colgate (Patriot League semifinals)

As pointed out last week, Bucknell has to be the best six-loss team in the country, right? Those losses — three of which went to overtime — have been by a combined seven goals. The Bison haven't quite done enough to warrant an NCAA tournament berth, but I'm surprised more people aren't talking about them, especially after giving Virginia a run for its money in the first round last year. A Patriot League championship would eradicate all the one-goal demons.

Next Two Out

Denver (7-5)

Strength of schedule: 15
RPI: 16
Wins of note: Penn State
Remaining games: Friday vs. Duke (Mile High Classic at Sports Authority Field), ECAC Tournament

We keep waiting for Denver to go on a run. There's no more time to waste. If the Pioneers are going to make a splash, now would be the time to do it. Denver has arguably the most to gain of any bubble team, since a showdown with Duke and a potential win over Loyola in the ECAC Tournament would give the Pioneers a pair of top-5 victories.

Syracuse (7-6)

Strength of schedule: 12
RPI: 18
Wins of note: Princeton
Remaining games: Saturday at Notre Dame, Big East Tournament

It hasn't been Syracuse's season, but would anyone be surprised to see the Orange run the table and win the Big East Tournament? A regular-season win against Notre Dame, followed by a defeat of Villanova in the conference tourney might also be enough, depending on other results.

Others Considered (alphabetically):

Drexel (6-7), Georgetown (6-6), Navy (6-6), Ohio State (7-6)

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