March 27, 2013

Lambrecht: It's Not Madness, it's Normal

by Gary Lambrecht |

Syracuse rose into the top five after a mostly strong March, then was exposed by Villanova in a 11-10 loss on Saturday. The dizzying results are the new normal, writes Gary Lambrecht.
© Greg Wall

So you thought the best teams truly were beginning to separate from the not-so-great already, didn't you?

You figured, as the season rolled into late March, that six weeks of contests were starting to clarify the game's top tier and the next one or two after that, right? Raise your hand if you had begun to envision Maryland and Cornell, each of which had been playing elite-level lacrosse, charging into May with unblemished records.

In case we needed to be reminded that things just don't work that way anymore in the wild world of NCAA Division I men's lacrosse, last week shook a little sense back into us all.

There was second-ranked Cornell getting toppled by Bucknell. The Bison, having risen to a historically high, No. 7 ranking with an 8-1 record after its huge night against the Big Red, promptly got crushed on Tuesday night by a Penn State (6-3) team that had nearly tumbled out of the top 20.

Then came formerly top-ranked Maryland's sloppy, 10-8 loss to visiting North Carolina on Saturday, a defeat that simply proved that no one, not even the most balanced, talented team in the sport, can necessarily win nowadays without bringing it against a worthy opponent.

There was Johns Hopkins, which had looked glaringly shaky at both ends of the field at key times in its two billboard losses to Princeton and Syracuse, playing the fastest and loosest the Blue Jays have played in recent memory while piling up scores at (for them) a dizzying rate and smacking rival Virginia by seven goals.

There was Syracuse, having just completed a month-long display of lockdown defense by stuffing Hopkins at the Carrier Dome — and rising into the top five as a result — getting exposed big-time at the faceoff X by Villanova specialist Tom Croonquist, who carried the 2-5 Wildcats to a one-goal victory over the Orange on Saturday.

Madness, you say? Not even close. This has been the new normal for a while in this game. Picture a lacrosse season as a snake that keeps changing directions and challenging you to keep up with its twists and turns and occasional bite.

Meet the new normal indeed. Just when you think you know, think the opposite. Expect the unexpected, but don't read too much into it. Parity has a way of drilling that sentiment into your head.

I think back to the 2000 season, when I first covered college lacrosse for the Baltimore Sun, and that little world was so quaint and predictable. The bluebloods ruled. It was a tight club led by members named Princeton, Syracuse, Virginia and Hopkins.

I wrote a piece during the preseason asking if we could just fast forward to Memorial Day at Byrd Stadium — that's right, the days when the final four was still played on college campuses — so defending champ Virginia could square off with the 'Cuse for all of the marbles.

Virginia happened to lose to a younger Princeton team in the semifinals, while Syracuse edged Hopkins in the other semifinal. Syracuse then crushed Princeton on Monday.

Those days didn't change right away, but they feel like a prehistoric era now. Lacrosse has grown incredibly at the recreational and high school levels, and in turn has flooded a comparatively slower-growing collegiate game with an abundance of good and great talent. And it seems as if every other team is recruiting hard in Canada, which keeps sending these gifted, sometimes dazzling scorers south.

Here we are at midseason in 2013, in deliciously uncertain times. Give a nod to Loyola (Md.) University, which last year finally broke through the blueblood wall by winning it all with an amazing, 18-1 record — so against the grain of parity.

Here we are at midseason, and the possibilities are endless. Who will emerge from the scrum of so many worthy and emerging teams? I still think Maryland and Cornell have the fewest weaknesses, with Loyola coming hard from a few lengths back. But what does that mean right now, besides nothing?

You have top-ranked Notre Dame (for now) with its defense and its veteran composure in one-run games. Syracuse isn't going away. You have the explosive offense of Denver pushing Loyola in a ridiculously good ECAC, in which the top five teams are a combined 30-11 overall. You have the best Ivy League in ages, including a battle-scarred Princeton team that has the best combination of toughness and offensive weaponry in a decade on that campus.

You know it's an unpredictable year when Virginia, which won it all with five losses in 2011, looks like the bottom feeder in a strange ACC that includes Duke and North Carolina, each sporting multiple personalities. Oh, and there's always Hopkins, which has gone five years without a final four appearance — longest in school history over the 42-year history of the NCAA tournament — but has some scary youth in its favor.

On top of all of that, don't be surprised if the league champions from the Patriot League (unranked Colgate?) or the CAA (Penn State?) wreak major havoc in mid-May.

This much I know. With only eight at-large berths to complement eight automatic qualifiers in the NCAA tournament, some truly dangerous teams will be left out of the postseason party. But that won't stop the snake from biting.

Between now and then, enjoy the madness — the new normal.

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