May 2, 2012

Lambrecht: Few At-Large Berths For the Taking

by Gary Lambrecht |

Villanova, which lost a stunner to now 2-13 Providence on Saturday, needs to win the Big East tournament or hope for some help to make the NCAAs.
© John Strohsacker/

How is this for another twist in a lacrosse season that seemingly has featured a strange occurrence about once a week?

As we head into Division I championship week, during which six conference tournaments will determine automatic qualifiers for the upcoming NCAA tournament – and yield the rest of the nine, at-large bids that will form the 16-team field to be announced on Sunday – the suspense meter is running a bit low.

Besides producing the AQs, the remaining league tournaments (ECAC, CAA, IVY, America East, Big East, and the MAAC) will most likely uncover the last two at-large teams rounding out the bracket. Yes, I realize saying "most likely" can be a reach this time of year.

After such a regular season of wild turns – the latest being Saturday's stinker authored by Villanova, the second-place team in the Big East, in a damaging loss to bottom-feeding Providence – you would expect a large amount of postseason fortunes to play out in the next few days.

But it just doesn't feel like high drama time in May. Not yet, anyway. How did this happen?

For starters, thank the America East and Patriot League, for different reasons. The AE is a one-bid mess in 2012. No league champion can survive the AE tournament and enter the NCAAs with a winning record.

The Patriot League already has made its statement. Tournament champion Lehigh, whom no one relishes the idea of playing this month, owns the AQ. Runner-up Colgate, another dangerous team up ahead, is a lock for an at-large. In my view, if the Raiders beat visiting Maryland on Saturday, Colgate could elevate to host a first-round game and leave the Terps packing their bags for the first weekend of the main event.

The ACC, with no AQ capability, is all in with Virginia, Duke, North Carolina and Maryland as at-large entries. So is Johns Hopkins, which not only would maintain its seal on a home playoff game with an expected Homecoming win against Army on Saturday, but could ascend into the NCAA tournament's 4-5 seed neighborhood.

That leaves three at-large slots open, and I think Penn State (9-5) has a pretty firm grip on one of those, as it enters the CAA tourney bearing the No. 2 seed.

The Nittany Lions have no bad losses, and have handed Notre Dame (11-1 and No. 1 in RPI) its only defeat. Penn State is solid in RPI (11), quality win factor (9) and strength of schedule (2). If Penn State loses to Drexel in the CAA semifinals, the Lions still could survive, since they already beat Drexel on the road in the regular season. Just by reaching the CAA final, Penn State moves on.

Drexel or Penn State could dethrone top-seeded UMass, the last unbeaten left standing in Division I. But I think Drexel needs to win the league tournament (an extremely tall order) to stay alive. If that happens, then the CAA could send all three to the NCAAs. UMass, of course, is in, no matter what happens this week.

That brings us to the Ivy League, Big East and the ECAC. The first two have been significant disappointments this year.

The Ivy League looks increasingly like a one-team, NCAA tournament conference, with top-seed Princeton the favorite over fading, Rob Pannell-less No. 2 seed Cornell. I don't think either school has quite enough tournament criteria juice to live on without winning the Ivy this weekend.

The same goes for second-seeded Villanova and third-seeded Syracuse in the Big East tournament semifinals. If the survivor of that match upsets top seed Notre Dame in the final – I'll paint my hair orange if Syracuse pulls it off – the Irish tumble into at-large land, while 'Nova could barely sneak into the NCAAs as a runner-up.

The ECAC features Loyola, Ohio State, Fairfield and Denver in the respective top four seeds, and is intriguing from a competitive standpoint. But it figures to send two teams to the NCAAs at most, and one of them is unquestionably Loyola.

Denver (8-5), with home-field advantage and previous losses to Loyola, Ohio State and Fairfield, probably needs an AQ to play on beyond this weekend. That means the fourth-seeded Pioneers must beat the Greyhounds (12-1, RPI 3) Wednesday night and then beat the Fairfield-Ohio State survivor on Friday. Otherwise, the Pioneers could be left out, thanks to Penn State and their huge, early-season win against Notre Dame.

In other words, six league tournaments point to this math. Denver, Villanova and Princeton, each as a conference tournament also-ran, could be fighting over the last two NCAA tournament spots.

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