May 9, 2012

Lambrecht: Virginia Lurking in Wide-Open Division I Men's Tournament

by Gary Lambrecht |

Can defending champion Virginia pick itself up this NCAA tournament? "Some people are going to sleep on Virginia, and that's something no one should do," Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said.
© Matt Riley

Virginia head coach Dom Starsia remembers a time not long ago when the Cavaliers pretty much expected to roll into Memorial Day weekend, possibly toting a couple of losses. The same type of expectations typically weighed on such Division I stalwarts as Syracuse and Johns Hopkins, and in more recent years have followed Duke.

Starsia has seen the times change significantly, thanks to the sport's spreading talent and steadily creeping parity. And Virginia has managed to adjust effectively enough to lift the big trophy in these times. But it keeps getting tougher.

A year ago, a worn-down, defensively-challenged group of Cavaliers, led by rejuvenated attackman Steele Stanwick, grinded their way to their fourth NCAA title under Starsia. Virginia became the first, five-loss team to pull off the feat in 41 NCAA tournaments.

With the next NCAA tournament unfolding this weekend, Virginia (11-3) is the perfect example of where the sport seems to be heading. The Cavaliers earned the No. 5 seed, following back-to-back, season-ending stumbles at home against Duke and North Carolina, including an embarrassing, 13-5 loss to Duke on Senior Night. They ended the season with a win against Penn, but Virginia appears vulnerable on the big stage. Just like last year.

Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala speculated that, in a year that has produced such unexpected powers as top-seeded Loyola (14-1) and unbeaten, No. 6 seed UMass, in a year that has seen the rise of upstarts such as No. 7 seed Lehigh (14-2), Virginia has settled in nicely below the main storyline area.

"I think some people are going to sleep on Virginia, and that's something no one should do," Pietramala said. "But this [tournament] is wide open, maybe more than it's ever been."

Starsia, winding up his 20th season in Charlottesville, agreed that this year's 16-team bracket is impossible to handicap. He is thrilled just to have a relatively rested, healthy team ready to test its survival skills. The Cavaliers host Princeton in the first round at 1 p.m. Sunday in Charlottesville.

"We're not as smooth as we need to be. We need to be more efficient on offense. We can't run by people as easily as we have in the past," Starsia said. "But it's a very unpredictable science trying to find a leading candidate [to win it all]. I don't think anybody has indicated they are going to steamroll this tournament."

As we wait for the tournament to start its engines, a few items worth pondering:

I DARE THE ACC TO DO IT AGAIN: Once again, all four teams from the Atlantic Coast are in the dance, from third-seeded Duke to unseeded Maryland, and it's conceivable that the foursome could comprise the final four at Gillette Stadium. Don't laugh. A year ago, ACC schools did not lose one tournament game to a non-conference opponent, and three made it to M&T Bank Stadium, where Virginia outlasted unseeded Maryland in the title game.

BET THE OVER IN THESE FIRST-ROUND SHOOTOUTS: The battle between eighth-seeded North Carolina and No. 9 Denver has a 15-13 kind of score written all over it, as each squad is wildly inconsistent on defense and has a top-shelf faceoff man in Denver's Chase Carraro and Carolina's R.G. Keenan. UMass could slow the game down more against unseeded Colgate and produced a lower-scoring contest. But, with super-scorers Will Manny and Colgate's Peter Baum running the respective offenses, I doubt it. There will be fireworks in Amherst.

DENVER OWES DUKE: When you boil it down, the only reason unseeded Denver (8-6) is in this tournament is that, on April 28, Duke took a 10-game winning streak to the Mile High City with a top three seed in the bag and little to play for, before heading into final exams and a well-deserved week off. And the Blue Devils acted like it, as head coach John Danowski benched his starters for various chunks of the first half in a 15-9 loss. Denver, which finished fourth in the ECAC and beat no one above it in the league standings – despite getting two cracks at top dog Loyola at home – went 2-6 against the top 20. But that Duke win gave the Pioneers the star it needed to sneak in. Is Denver a formidable threat or a paper tiger?

NO FAVOR TO LOYOLA: The tournament selection committee got the field right, when you break down the numbers and criteria. But they got two slots in the bracket dead wrong. Denver, not Maryland, should have to beat No. 7 Lehigh and potentially face No. 2 seed Johns Hopkins in the quarterfinals. Maryland should be facing Carolina in the first round, with a potential chance to upset Loyola in week two. As it stands, the Greyhounds, after going to the Rockies twice to take down Denver already this spring, may have to beat Bill Tierney's boys a third time. That just ain't fair to Loyola.

IVY QUESTIONS: It's very cool that Yale got on a late-season roll that culminated with its destruction of Princeton in the Ivy League tournament final, resulting in an AQ that gave the Bulldogs their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years. It's good to see Princeton in the dance, even though the Tigers backed in with an awful showing on their home field. But the cold reality is, to this point, these unseeded Ivy squads have essentially beaten no one but other Ivies. In round one, Princeton goes to Virginia, while Yale hits the road for a dose of stingy, playoff-seasoned, no. 4 seed Notre Dame. Good night and good luck.

KING OF THE SLEEPERS: It sure isn't UMass or Loyola, neither of whom is hiding from anyone. Maybe it's Colgate. But somehow I think seventh-seeded Lehigh, in its first NCAA tournament trip, could be the Cinderella supreme this year. I think Kevin Cassese is the Coach of the Year. I love the way the Mountain Hawks grind on defense, ala Hopkins, whom Lehigh will have to upset (after getting past Maryland) to reach Gillette. That's a real tall order. But Lehigh also can score in bunches, as it proved in the 16-14 barnburner it won over Colgate to capture a riveting, Patriot League final.

WALKING THE TIGHTROPE: Can Notre Dame, which stews in one-goal games and is the worst-shooting team in this thing, actually get back to the final four with an offense that reaches 10 goals about once every other full moon? With the ridiculously steady John Kemp minding the cage behind that killer D, are you kidding? Of course it can.

COME ON, JACK: When Loyola defenseman Reid Acton scored from 80 yards out – his heave at the end of the first quarter of the Greyhounds' rout over Fairfield in the ECAC final should live on in lacrosse highlight reels for decades – it marked about the 51st way Loyola has scored during this amazing season. Now it's up to goalie Jack Runkel to get off his duff and get on the scoreboard.

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