April 18, 2014

Lambrecht: Post-Season Atmosphere Already in the Air

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Notre Dame might need a win in either this weekend's showdown with Maryland or the ACC semifinals to earn a berth to the dance, making the Irish one of several teams that already must have a post-season mindset as they take the field. (Peyton Williams)

The NCAA tournament officially does not begin until the first round commences on May 10.

The first of a flurry of important conference tournaments do not get underway until next week, when the Patriot League and Atlantic Coast Conferences get the postseason dancing started and begin to determine who will receive 10 automatic bids to the NCAAs, and who will grab eight at-large invitations to the party.

But make no mistake. The postseason air already is palpable. As the regular season approaches its end, playoff games essentially are on, as thoughts turn toward RPI, strength of schedule, quality wins and bad losses – the stuff to be chewed on by the NCAA tournament selection committee before it announces the 18-team bracket on May 4.

Right now, the game is all about securing spots and the highest possible seeds in the conference tournaments. Here are a few glimpses into what's at stake as May approaches.

When the season began, it was easy to look at the six-team ACC and put every team in the NCAAs, meaning five schools would take at-large spots, leaving three precious bids for the rest of the lot.

Here's how good this league is. The "showcase" game between fifth-seeded North Carolina and sixth-seeded Virginia at PPL Park essentially means little in terms of filling the at-large portion of the bracket. But the winner of that contest has a good shot of securing a home game in the first round of the NCAAs.

But there is one team with much at stake in the ACC. Notre Dame, which hosts Maryland on Saturday, already has a spot in the ACC tournament. But if the Fighting Irish lose to the Terps on Saturday, then lose in the ACC semifinals, Notre Dame might have beat Army in its regular season finale just to make the NCAAs. Maryland, on the other hand, probably will secure a home game just by winning in South Bend on Saturday.

In the America East, all eyes are on Albany, which is tied with first-place Binghamton at 3-0 and a game up on UMBC with two weeks left in the regular season. But the Great Danes (6-5) already have shown they can lose to teams that maintain possession time and slow them down as a result – hello, Bryant and Canisius.

On Saturday, Albany plays at UMBC, which scores a ton of goals at home, before closing with a visit by Binghamton. This is still Albany's league tournament to lose, but unlike 2013, when Albany had road wins against Syracuse and Johns Hopkins in its pocket, the Great Danes have no at-large breathing room. They must get the AQ or go home.

The Big East looks very much like a two-horse race between first-place Denver (3-0) and second-place Villanova (2-1). The Wildcats gave the Pioneers quite a tussle in an overtime loss in Philly recently.

But watch out for St. John's, which could secure a conference tournament spot by upsetting visiting Nova on Saturday, and make things interesting when the Big East tourney shifts to Villanova. A looming rematch with Denver could be very interesting there in the tournament title game, especially if Nova learned its lesson from the first meeting and doesn't gift-wrap the contest by putting it in the hands of Denver's EMO unit.

The Colonial Athletic Association tournament often proves to be an unpredictable scrum, and this year's edition looks no different, even though first-place Hofstra (3-0) has made so many timely plays while winning nine of its last 11 games. The Pride can clinch home-field advantage by winning at UMass on Saturday night, but the Minutemen are getting desperate. A win over Hofstra could make UMass a very dangerous road team in the CAA tourney.

With Delaware (0-3) virtually out of it and Penn State (1-2) ineligible, it's just a question of who will host the semifinal games as the highest seeds and ultimately the CAA title game. The Drexel-Towson game in Baltimore on Saturday night should settle much of that speculation, since Drexel (3-1) is already a game up on the Tigers (2-2) in second place. The Dragons looked poised to be a tough out as the CAA's no. 2 seed.

The real madness can be found in the Ivy, where Cornell, Harvard, Yale, Penn and Princeton are separated by one game in a league that ultimately will yield at least one at-large participant in the NCAAs.

Cornell (9-3, 3-1) has lost three straight and has tumbled out of its former no. 1 ranking. Harvard (3-1) is smarting from last week's loss to Penn (3-2), which is tied with Yale for third place.

And there is fifth-place Princeton (2-2), which could be poised to make a move upward in the Ivy standings with its date at Harvard on Saturday and against Cornell in Bethpage, N.Y. on April 26. Sure, Princeton could not stop a soul early in the season, but don't go to sleep on the Tigers.

The most intriguing Ivy school is Penn. The Quakers, who should close out their regular-season league schedule with a win over Dartmouth on Saturday, have lost to Princeton and Cornell, and thus could end up seeded anywhere in the Ivy tournament without a slip-up on Saturday.

Also, Penn, thanks to its typically tough nonconference scheduling – an early loss to Duke, an early win against Denver – has maintained very strong RPI, strength of schedule and quality win numbers. Thus, the Quakers could flop in the Ivy tournament and still make the big dance.

As for the Patriot League, the only team to push top-seeded Loyola at home has been no. 2 seed Army in what has been a surprisingly weak conference that has hurt the top-ranked Greyhounds' RPI and SOS.

Although no. 3 seed Lehigh is improving, it's hard to envision any other PL final than Army-Loyola on April 27 at Ridley Athletic Complex. And should the Black Knights pull off that upset – Army's only ticket to the NCAAs – Loyola will cause a lot of groaning elsewhere by snatching an at-large bid off of the board.

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