May 2, 2013

UnCensered: At-Large Teams Make the Case for NCAA Bid

by Joel Censer | | Censer Archive | Twitter

Duke had everyone fooled again this year, starting off slow and now in solid position for a deep NCAA tournament run.
© Peyton Williams

Strength of schedule. RPI. Quality wins.

You know 'em when you see 'em. Those May buzzwords are thrown out in every other sentence at this time of the year. Bracketologists spend as much time predicting the bracket as they do reminding us about the criteria used by the NCAA Selection Committee.

That criterion — selecting at-large teams mostly based on how hard their schedule is and how many quality wins they have — is fair and the right way to go about it.

But it's also cold and a bit lifeless. It doesn't reward teams for peaking at the right time or playing a free-wheeling brand of lacrosse. The NCAA could care less about what a group's on-field product looks like. The committee is much more interested in whether a team beat a solid opponent in an early February blizzard.

This is mostly good. Well-defined, standardized processes generally indicate a developed society. But the same calculated efficiency that is used to award NCAA berths, in many ways, reflects the same mindset coaches have used to win ballgames in May.

I've covered championship weekend for three years now and during that timeframe there has been one good game: an under the lights, 14-13 barnburner between Virginia and Duke in Baltimore in 2010. Last year also held some memorable first-round moments too, particularly when Denver faced North Carolina for a track meet in Chapel Hill.

But the last few postseasons have been marked mostly by grueling, single-digit games in which possessions were horded and time killed behind the goal. Everyone watched as teams used inverts not to generate offense, but to cruelly hold held the ball for minutes on end. For all the hand wringing about the lack of attendance at the past few final fours, the truth is the games themselves haven't really warranted big crowds.

While the new rules and potential timer-on calls will help, there is an easier way for the NCAA to ensure the playoffs are exciting. Just hire me. I'd meet with each team that had a playoff resume but didn't lock up the conference AQ at a Marriot conference center somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic. I'd give each squad a minute to make its case for why it deserves one of the eight at-large berths, and pick the lucky winners. As for the teams I'd select, yes, resumes and strength of schedule would matter. But so would whether teams would make people, you know, enjoy watching lacrosse on TV.

In this alternate universe, I would talk with all of the at-large teams included in Patrick Stevens' Monday Bracketology. Except North Carolina. What's the point? The Tar Heels just won the ACC tournament while averaging 17 goals a game. They don't have to answer to anyone.

Maryland Terrapins

Joel: Hi, Maryland.

Maryland: Hey, Joel.

Joel: Let's be honest, you have the playoff resume, although there are definitely some warning signs. You beat a Josh Hawkins-less Loyola. You beat Duke when the Blue Devils were doing their usual early-season possum routine. You're 3-3 in your last six games.

Maryland: Give me a break. We have a top-10 RPI and were just dealing with a little mid-season blues. You know this team comes out of its shell when we get to the postseason.

Joel: Should "come out of your shell" be translated to: hold the ball for minutes at a time, force people to watch games on fast forward on DVR, and single-handedly change the college rulebook?

Maryland: We made the title game the last two years! We were just playing smart lacrosse. For us, that meant winning the possession war and then being choosy with our choices. With the threat of timer-on, we'll have Mike Chanenchuck, John Haus, Kevin Cooper, and Jake Bernhardt dodging hard to score and throwing lots of rubber at the cage. We promise.

Joel: I like that answer. But you're still ranked 52nd by Tempo Free Lax in terms of pace. Regardless, I'll give you at an at-large bid mostly because I think Jesse Bernhardt is the second-best player in college lacrosse and deserves the big stage.

Yale Bulldogs

Yale: So about that bid...

Joel: Right. Look I respect you guys a ton. You're the team no one, and I mean no one, wants to play in the postseason. You have a top-shelf defense. You play harder than your opponent. Faceoff technician Dylan Levings can change the complexion of a game. On offense, Brandon Mangan, Conrad Oberbeck and Kirby Zdrill always score enough. You're like Maryland without using the word "Ops" to describe your uniforms.

But it's not about you. It's about m...

Yale: What, no!

Joel: Look, I just let the Terps in. Lehigh's in. Penn State's in. There's just a plethora of grit-and-grind teams and I want my playoffs to have a heavy dose of scoring.

Bucknell Bison

Bucknell hopes it has another chance to walk off a winner, if the Bison can grab an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Joel: Ah, Bucknell. Sorry about the Patriot Final. Tough drive back through central Pennsylvania?

Bucknell: All good.

Joel: I like the squad this year. Nice mix of cagey veterans and talented youth. David Dickson might have my favorite stat line in all of college lacrosse with eight goals and 45 assists from the midfield. You guys are solid all over the field and could definitely play the role of pesky upstart. I still remember when you lost to Virginia in overtime in the first round in 2011. That game was incredible.

Bucknell: Until the last two minutes...

Joel: Right. Tempo Free Lax says you guys have the best ride in the country, but it doesn't take numbers to figure that out. You better believe that ferocious ten-man deserves a national broadcast. You're in.

Loyola Greyhounds

Loyola: Do we really have to do this? We won the national championship last year and you're telling us some punk kid now decides if we go to the dance?

Joel: Ok, well we can just skip the pleasantries. You're in.

I still love your team. You're ruthless when the ball is on the carpet. You've never met a shot in transition you didn't like. You have two transcendent between-the-stripes talents in Scott Ratliff and Josh Hawkins. I do wonder if you can go goal-for-goal if you play against a high-scoring offense. But I'm also giddy about your potential championship game matchup with Cornell. Joe Fletcher may be the premier one-on-one cover guy in the country. I would pay full ticket price to watch him lock horns with Rob Pannell, the first attackman since Mike Powell to be able to get in front of the net at will.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Joel: Speaking of the ECAC, hello Ohio State.

Ohio State: Joel.

Joel: Look I'm squeezed here. Your biggest win was against Penn State ... on March 2. I'm just not convinced you can get by the elite teams. The last two you played — Notre Dame and Loyola — didn't have much of a problem beating you by five goals.

Ohio State: But we do have elite Canadian talent. I thought you loved Canucks?

Joel: I do. But I'm not totally convinced you can win a championship relying completely on box-trained talent. And we already have Denver, which is just as Canadian and I think has a little more depth at that end.

Ohio State: You're not welcome in Columbus anymore.

Duke Blue Devils

Joel: Duke! My dad went to Duke.

Duke: Awesome. He loved it right?

Joel: Not particularly. Anyway, congrats on doing it again. I mean you guys really did it this year. Everyone left you for dead. After that 16-7 trashing at the hands of Terps, I thought it wasn't just the typical early-season swoon. I thought it was the end on an era. But then you made some personnel changes, picked up with wins over Loyola and North Carolina and now look primed to make some postseason noise.

Duke: Yeah, we did do that, didn't we?

Joel: There's not much of a question that with Brandon Fowler dominating the faceoff dot, you guys will have the ball and be able to put it into the back of the net. But for all the range and talent on the backline, the defense just isn't the 2010 Costabile, McKee, Manley incarnate. I also have my eye on Jordan Wolf. We know he can get a step. Can he take, to paraphrase the ESPNU booth, the next couple steps to greatness? Regardless, I'm ready to find out. In.

Penn Quakers

Joel: Hey Penn, I root for you guys.

Penn: We know.

Joel: Your resume reads like kids from Wharton helped craft it. Wins over Duke, Lehigh, Villanova and Princeton. But they all came before Mid-March and — save Lehigh — against undisciplined defenses. Look, your squad, if you find an answer at quarterback, will be an absolute monster in 2014. But I'm just not sure you can generate enough offense to win a playoff game this year. It pains me to say it too.

St. John's Red Storm

Joel: What's up, St John's?

St John's: Not much. Kind of bored.

Joel: Like Yale, you guys are an outfit no one would want to play in a single-elimination game. If it turned into a grinding affair, having to match goals with Kieran McArdle, Kevin Cernuto and all those booby trap picks you set behind the cage just isn't fair. There's a reason you've beaten Notre Dame the last two seasons.

St John's: Yeah, there's definitely worse things than having McArdle and Cernuto playing the two-man game or taking guys off the dribble.

Joel: Anyway, I know goalie Jeff Lowman's concussion really hurt the defense down the stretch. But it's pretty hard to give an NCAA tournament berth to a team that didn't even make the Big East tournament. As much as I'm a believer in a McArdle-led offense, I'm just not sure you would possess enough to potentially make a run in May. Sorry.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

In a selection process based on appeal rather than numbers, Princeton is in.
© John Strohsacker

Joel: The Fighting Irish!

Notre Dame: (5-second ESPNU delay)... Let's just get this over with. We have a wins over Denver, Duke, North Carolina, Penn State and Ohio State. We deserve to go to the dance, get a home game, play in Indianapolis and that's that.

Joel: That just might be the problem. You shut teams down. Save last week's Syracuse game, you take good offenses and just out execute them. It's not made for TV defense though. No takeaway checks. No fancy stick work, just six guys working on a string, switching, sliding and recovering. How upset were the TV executives when you kept Steele Stanwick from Boston last year?

Notre Dame: Whatever. Say what you want about made for TV defense. We're a visual reminder to the rest of the the lax community that brains and teamwork matter more than range, height or much of anything else on that end. Plus we're the built-in counterpoint to the Pannells and Bitters of the world. Jordan needed the Bad Boy Pistons to rise to the occasion right?

Joel: OK. I'm still worried about all those recent close scores and your offense getting tripped up some in the half-field. But point taken and ticket punched.

Drexel Dragons

Joel: Hey Drexel, did you guys read's hilarious post earlier in the season about how he didn't understand how game after game you guys would dig yourselves into some huge deficit and then come back with the fury of a thousand suns? He concluded: "I am now convinced that Drexel is as close to invincible as possible. This is a non-negotiable conclusion."

Drexel: Read it. Laughed a bit. We're pretty hardened here in West Philly though.

Joel: I guess in yesterday's loss to Towson, you just played too close to the fire one too many times? Frankly I don't care. Any high-scoring group constantly involved in fantastic finishes sounds tailor made for the postseason. You'll have to travel for the first round — living on the edge does have drawbacks — but pack your bags.

Princeton Tigers

Joel: Hey Princeton, Look, I'm getting tired, so let's make this quick. You probably don't deserve to make the dance. But good gracious your offense is explosive with Tommy Schreiber, Mike MacDonald and the Brothers Froccaro. Heck, Kip Orban would be the best midfielder on most teams. I know the defense has been nicked up, but just play zone or slide early or something. I want to see Schreiber picking-and-slipping and slicing-and-dicing in the postseason. It's that simple. Welcome.

Johns Hopkins Blue Jays

Joel: Oh, Hopkins. I didn't forget about you I swear.

Johns Hopkins: So what's the deal with like, the playoffs, man?

Joel: I can't lie. I felt terrible watching the team lose to Loyola last week. Look, it's the nature of the beast. I've watched something like 213,094 TV broadcasts of this Hopkins team. I felt like I was sort of there as Ranagan, Palmer, Greeley, Coppersmith and Durkin all established themselves. I remember that game in the Carrier Dome in 2011 when they first gained confidence. Ditto for last year when they traveled to Charlottesville, beat Virginia on its own turf and anything seemed possible. This season, I got a similar feeling when they did the same thing to the 'Hoos at M&T Bank Stadium. But besides a few notable instances, it just never seemed to all fit all together for you guys in 2013. I'm not sure what happened. I don't think you know either. But I know I can't deal with the ups and downs anymore. What's done is done and I think it's best we just move on from this year. There will be a new streak soon enough.

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