March 22, 2013

Coyne v. Censer: Embracing New Tourney Format

by Jac Coyne and Joel Censer | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

While it's unlikely that Tufts and Stevenson would find themselves in the same four-team mini-regional, the possibility of playing two games in one weekend will be a challenge for all teams if the tourney field expands to 32 teams next spring, as expected.

With the possibility that the NCAA Division III tournament field is going to expand to as many as 32 teams next spring, there have been conversations among the members of the selection committee as to how to make a larger bracket work in the same amount of time allotted before Memorial Day weekend. One of the solutions, according to Nazareth head coach Rob Randall, who will be the chair of the committee next spring, is to introduce a mini-regional format.

This model, which would have three teams converge on the campus of a fourth, playing games on Friday and Sunday, has been implemented by the NCAA Division III women for several years and is an efficient way to chop the field down to eight teams over the course of three days. But is it the right fit for the Division III men?

The women's game is much different from the men's game. Despite the opinion held by some Maryland state legislature politicos, the women's game is (mostly) a non-contact sport, so healing time can generally be quicker. As such, they play a Saturday-Sunday format. For the men to turn around and play two tournament games in three days raises some questions about whether it is going allow the top teams in the country to put their best product on the field at the most important time of year.

With that said, plenty of D-III men's teams play multiple games in one weekend, especially when it comes to conference tournament time. The NESCAC even plays its league semifinals and finals on back-to-back days and the level of play doesn't appear to be suffering. Just last weekend, the Rochester-area schools hosted a Coaches vs. Cancer event where six programs played two games in a weekend and the consensus among the coaches was they didn't have a problem with it as long as everyone else was doing it, too. And, of course, the Division I teams do it for their national semifinals and finals.

Assuming there is no impact on the quality of play, the only other apparent drawback is some teams won't receive their reward for putting together a strong season. In a 32-team format, the top eight teams in the country should ostensibly be afforded the luxury of hosting one of the weekends. However, in women's D-III, as well as other NCAA sports that use the mini-regional concept, there have been times that geographical concerns have trumped seeding.

As a hypothetical example, say Colby was the top seed in a regional, and the other teams were Western New England, Plattsburgh and Nazareth. In a black and white world, the last three get shipped up to Waterville, Maine, but due to travel and budget constraints, the NCAA occasionally works in shades of gray where having all the teams converge on Springfield, Mass., where WNE is located, is a better overall fit.

That aside, there's a lot to like about the regional idea. For fans, it provides one weekend location for possibly two games instead of having to burn a vacation day for a one-hitter on Wednesday. It also puts the outcomes in the hands of the players, as opposed to precise game plans or coaching gadgetry, especially in the second of the two contests.

Joel, I'm sure you've played multiple games in a weekend during the course of your career. What have you found is the impact physically and psychologically, and what are the pros and cons of potentially adopting this new mini-regional model?

CENSER: Wow. The Division III lacrosse tournament is expanding to 32 teams and considering scrapping the current playoff format for some regional play-day and Jac breaks the news via a Coyne v. Censer column?

I'm not sure what to make of the idea.

I like that teams would have to play multiple games in a weekend. The Centennial Conference tournament does it this way too, and like Jac, I think it's an effective primer. Any team that survives that type of multi-game gauntlet/pressure cooker deserves to move on and is probably well suited for postseason lacrosse. Put up or shut up.

What I'm most worried about is that the regional sites will always be hosted by the same eight-nine-ten teams. At Haverford, I remember when the volleyball or softball teams made the playoffs they'd always have to go to the same random school that was dominant in those sports. Medfahd, Cortland, the Eastern Shore. It wouldn't be too different in lacrosse.

In 2009, the year after I graduated from Haverford, the Squirrels hosted Salisbury in a second round NCAA playoff game. It was a seminal moment for the program. A small, 1,100-person school where a stick-and-ball game draws as many people as a documentary viewing about struggling migrant workers in Greenland could not only make the playoffs, but host Salisbury. Salisbury! The game was a way to alert the student body, alumni and everyone else on campus that the lacrosse team had arrived.

As the Gulls entered the stadium that day in two single-file lines, hootin' and hollerin' and pumping out their chest as they normally do before a game, they were probably as confused as some of the Haveford students were scared. "We really have to play lacrosse in this pastoral, PCU Quaker wonderland?"

For other D-III upstarts of the past decade — the Cabrinis, the WNEs, the Stevensons, etc. — being able to host an NCAA game was a tangible way to show progress and a big step towards establishing those programs on campus.

But I guess this is how this stuff works, right? Times change. Formats change. Teams adjust. If I had tried to explain the Pool B process to those dominant Hobart squads a couple decades ago, I probably would've been beaten up.

Onto the games, where the speed round created some separation after Coyne's 8-2 week, 19-11 to 16-14.

Amherst (3-2) at Nazareth (4-3) - Saturday, 12 p.m. (at Albany)

COYNE: These two teams play strong enough schedules so that they haven't fallen off the cliff yet, but they are both certainly peering over the edge. With the smaller number of Pool C bids this spring, the loser of this contest likely moves into the AQ-or-bust category.

Naz received some good news with the return of Drew Simoneau, who missed the Roger Williams game but returned against Western New England on Sunday. Simoneau should dominate a Lord Jeffs squad that is weak (48 percent) at the dot and provide the Flyers with extra possessions. However, I can't shake the notion that Amherst has figured something out in the last two wins against EConn and Bowdoin (although the loss to Endicott give me pause). I'll take a 'flyer' on the Jeffs, 9-7.

CENSER: Like many young teams, Nazareth has taken a couple bumps on the chin and has struggled possessing against elite teams. But the Golden Flyers should have ample enough possessions and have proven their balanced offensive unit can score goals.

Amherst, meanwhile, has struggled to reach double digits and has a musical chairs routine going on in goal. Naz, 12-9.

No. 16 Union (3-1) at No. 13 Cabrini (3-3) - Sunday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: If this game was the season-opener for both programs, I would have predicted a 4-3 final one way or another, but we know a little bit more about these squads at this point. Union, as predicted, is still a chew-em-up defensive team, even with the graduation of All-American goalie Sean Aaron, but the Cavs aren't quite the stingy team as they were with All-American pole John McSorley in the line-up. The fact that Erick Zarzecki, who also received postseason accolades last year, has been supplanted in goal by rookie Chris Treat points to some issues on the Cabrini backline.

Still, it's tough to get too high on the Dutchmen with the 10-1 loss to Cortland still visible in the rear-view mirror. Recent results, including the 7-4 grindathon against Springfield, have allowed me to chalk that up to a season-opening offensive hiccup. Union won't score a ton of goals, but enough to sink the Cavs. D-men, 8-7.

CENSER: I think this game is going to be won and lost in the middle of the field. If Union can control the pace of this one, handle the Cabrini pressure cooker, be opportunistic in unsettled situations and actually convert on extra man (1-18), then the Dutchmen stand a chance.

But even in a half-field oriented game, I don't know if Union can go goal for goal with a mercurial Cavalier team that has its fair share of offense weapons. Cabrini, 11-5.

Plattsburgh (7-0) at Mary Washington (5-2) - Saturday, 12 p.m.

COYNE: I figured that I'd be writing about Plattsburgh trying to regroup after playing Conn. College on Wednesday, but the Cardinals stifled the Camels in a 7-5 win, announcing that they weren't just a hasty visitor to the weekly polls. This game against Mary Washington will be just as challenging for Ryan Cavanagh's outfit, however.

Mary Washington has allowed double digits just once this season (in an 18-13 shootout win over Randolph-Macon), bolstered by the play of junior netminder Zach DelGrosso (8.07 GAA; 57.8 sv%). Had Plattsburgh lost to the Camels, I would be all over the Eagles here, but I'm not about to go against the Cardinals at this point. Platty, 7-5.

CENSER: The Cardinals' Southern jaunt continues as they travel to FredVegas to take on the Eagles.

Wednesday, MWash struggled to generate any kind of offense when they were ground up by a stingy Washington and Lee outfit. I don't see the Eagles having much more success against an experienced Platt defense led by senior goalie Gordie Gehring (66.7 sv%). Upstate, 8-6.

Coyne's Pick

Whittier (3-6) at Greensboro (3-6) - Sunday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: One of my big concerns when it was announced that Pool B would have five bids this spring was that some of the better candidates would not get to the .500 level, and thus would be ineligible. With Whittier entering this game with a 3-6 record and just three games remaining against D-III competition, the playoffs have already started.

Greensboro's loss to Otterbein on Thursday also puts them in the danger zone. The Pride must finish 5-2 over its final seven contests -- which also includes games against Hampden-Sydney and Christopher Newport, along with the Poets -- so they are pretty much in playoff mode, as well. This contest is destined for a one-goal finish, and possibly overtime, but I have the Poets keeping their dream alive. WC, 11-10.

CENSER: Pool B Parasites go at it in North Carolina for a playoff spot that they don't really deserve? Got it.

Either way both teams have struggled to score goals in 2013. But with longtime Pride faceoff man Skip Jakupi out of the lineup, Greensboro's makeshift group will struggle against Whittier's Scott Pescheret (59%). Possessions rule the day here. Poets, 8-5.

Censer's Pick

No. 15 Western New England (3-2) at No. 9 Tufts (2-2) - Sunday, 1 p.m.

CENSER: Tufts announced pretty loudly to the rest of Division III what they are like at full strength when in four days they traveled to Stevenson and Stevens and won both in style. The Jumbos' Eastern Seaboard fact-finding tour ends Friday, before getting an always pesky WNE outfit at home.

I think as a prerequisite, the Golden Bears will have to score at least eight goals here. But the Tufts close defense of Sam Gardner, Matt Callahan, John Heard and goalie Patton Watkins looked pretty stout against the Mustangs (need to clean it up in transition though). 'Bos grind out a complete game here. 11-5, Tufts.

COYNE: In my MCLA pick 'em contest, I have a term for when one team plays two games in one weekend while the other two teams play just the one: the Double Down. It happens semi-frequently in the MCLA, but it almost never happens in other levels of lacrosse. Yet here we have Tufts attempting the Double Down this weekend, playing league foe Colby on Friday and then Western New England on Sunday.

Those that follow the MCLA also know that the success rate for the second game of the Double Down is extremely low, and I always pick against them, no matter the ranking. The fact that Tufts is attempting it against the Golden Bears, one of the top teams in the North, is troubling. More concerning is the Jumbos can barely afford to be giving away games at this point (although, admittedly, Mike Daly couldn't have known this when he made the schedule).

It should be a heck of a game, but I'm sticking with my theory. Western New England, 9-8.

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