May 3, 2013

Coyne v. Censer: Rethinking Conference Tourneys

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

There are plenty of conferences that produce dramatic postseason playoffs, but does Damian Sobieski and Cabrini really need to replay the CSAC field to prove it belongs in the NCAA tournament?
© Kevin P. Tucker

I'm a huge fan of tournaments. The possibility of one team outplaying a team thought to be superior on a game or series basis is one of the most compelling aspects of competitive athletics for me. There are some sports that I find nearly unwatchable during the regular season — baseball, basketball, hockey — but once the playoffs roll around, I find myself drawn in.

Heck, I'll admit to finding World Cup soccer mildly intriguing.

While I enjoy the finer details of regular season lacrosse, it doesn't match the excitement that comes when conference tournament time rolls around, either. All of the top teams have to scramble in hopes of knocking off their biggest challengers for a second time, making for some great drama.

But is this the best scenario for producing the optimal NCAA tournament?

There's a case to be made that the teams that have produced from Day One both in and out of conference should receive the fruits of their labor. Sure, they get the No. 1 seed and home field advantage in the current system, but basically they have to prove themselves all over again, and in a shortened timeline against teams that have, in many cases, peaked at one particular point in the spring. Why wouldn't we want to ensure that we're sending the programs that have performed for three months as opposed to the team that got hot for a week?

If you're not buying that argument, I don't necessarily blame you — it's not an easy one to make, especially since most one-week wonders always fizzle once they do go against season-long powers anyway. Pro sports teams, and occasionally an NCAA tournament basketball team, can get hot for three weeks, but it never happens in Division III lacrosse.

An aspect of D-III conference tournaments that I do think should be addressed is formulating a standard number — or perhaps percentage — of league members that can participate in a conference tournament, especially in light of the impact extra games can have on a Pool C (at-large) candidacy. As it stands now, there are four-, five-, six- and eight-team playoffs among the various conferences, creating a somewhat unlevel playing field for all of the contenders hoping to build the strongest resume.

Division III is all about inclusion, so my first instinct is to say that every team should be afforded a spot in league playoffs, but there are probably a group of teams that would rather just see the season end. We've already seen two 16-plus goal differentials in conference semifinals so far this spring, so to draw out 10- or 11-team bracket isn't going to be pretty (and there really isn't time). Four teams seems a bit light, even for a conference with seven members (the NCAA AQ minimum), so six teams would probably fit the bill.

This way, teams on the bubble can pick up another win to impress the committee while the top two teams earn a reward for their season-long accomplishments. And more importantly, everybody is playing with the same opportunity and teams will earn their shot at nationals because their conference proved to be stronger, not because their conference was willing to shell out the cash for an extra round of contests.

Without going off on a full-out Pool B rant and the issues that it causes, especially this year, should conferences be expected to work out of the same playbook or is it a dog-eat-dog world when it comes to making the NCAAs?

CENSER: Wow. An interesting idea. And plenty surprising.

For a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, I thought Jac would be slamming his fist down, muttering something about conference rights while decrying the idea of an intrusive, top-down NCAA mandate.

Instead he jumps up on his soapbox, asks every conference not to develop its own tournament and defer to the NCAA. Leaving me — the city-inhabiting, NPR-listening liberal — to argue that conferences should have the autonomy to develop any type of postseason tournament they want.

Look, it's in my own rooting interest for every conference tournament to include the top six teams. In 2013, a pesky Haverford outfit with a 4-4 in conference record barely missed out on the fourth seed of the Centennial playoffs.

But I really do think conferences are in the best position to decide their own postseasons. If the NESCAC wants to include eight different teams and play all across New England over a crazy, eight-day period? Go for it. In many ways, the tournament is symbolic of the dog-eat-dog nature of the conference. With parents needing all that premium gas for their Land Rovers, the tournament may provide important annual economic stimulus to the people of Middletown and Middlebury, too.

The ODAC is known for not having much depth after the "big four." But they still include six teams in their conference tournament. Maybe that postseason taste will eventually allow those on the cusp programs to see what postseason lacrosse is like and show them the necessary strides they will need to take the next step.

In the Centennial, with nine teams that are often not that far apart from one another competing for four spots, being in the conference tournaments means something different. When we first made it when I was a sophomore, it was a big deal for us. It meant the transformation from conference bottomfeeder to upstart was complete. Just ask Franklin & Marshall how it feels to be back after that time in the proverbial desert.

Frankly, if either the SUNYAC or CAC want to just scrap the whole tournament concept completely and crown Cortland or Salisbury in February, that'd save a lot of time, too.

The point is tournaments are often a reflection of the conference itself. The fact that we have a lot of different reflections is a good thing.

Onto the games, where Censer clings to a one-game advantage after both competitors posted 4-1 weeks, 38-27 to 37-28.

No. 9 Tufts (12-4) vs. No. 14 Conn. College (12-3) - Saturday, 1 p.m. (at Middlebury, Vt.)

COYNE: I'm not sure how much we can take away from that first game way back on March 12 between these two squads. Tufts, obviously, was not a full strength, but the Camels hadn't quite figured out their goalie situation. Two Conn. College netminders allowed 12 goals before Bobby Bleistein came in and allowed just three in 34 minutes of action. I won't say these two things cancel out, as Tufts is the more powerful team, but it's worth mentioning.

There's one way the Camels can pull this out. The Jumbos have quietly run a poor faceoff unit, sputtering along at a 45.3 percent clip as a team, and in their four losses they are minus-27 at the dot. If Brendan Schrader can run around 67 percent, Conn. College can control the tempo and wear down the Tufts backline. It's a tall order, regardless of Tufts troubles, and I don't see it happening. The Jumbos surge late, 13-9.

CENSER: I think this Connecticut College offense is better than people realize. Chad Sawyer and Andrew Freedman can both fill it up at attack. Not to mention the Camels' primary initiator, John Lyons, is finally back from injury. Can they go goal-for-goal with the Jumbos? If the game is played in the half-field and at a comfortable pace, potentially.

Camels shock the world, 12-10.

Franklin & Marshall (11-5) at No. 2 Dickinson (16-0) - Saturday, 1 p.m.

COYNE: Dickinson can take a loss here and still probably get a bye in the first round of the tournament, so it all comes down to whether the Dips can flip a couple of goals in their column and avenge a 12-10 loss to the Devils a week ago. F&M was locked up at eights with Dickinson midway through the third quarter in that game, but finally succumbed to the Devils, as every other team has done before.

Cameron Setian has been one of the most consistent goalies in the division this year, and in F&M's big wins, he's been solid. If he's red hot, the Dips should be in good shape. But it's never easy for a netminder to go against the Dickinson offensive onslaught led by Brian Cannon, Brian Gleason and Matt Cherry. The Dips make it interesting, but the Devils wrap up the Centennial, 9-7.

CENSER: Is Dickinson the favorite not just to win the Centennial but this whole thing? A senior-laden team that consistently finds a way to win all kinds of games is not a easy out come May.

With Setian manning the pipes and big Tristan Miller rumblin' towards the cage, Franklin & Marshall can definitely win a half-field-grounded contest. But my biggest concern for the Dips is moving from defense to offense. Franklin and Marshall clears at around an 81 percent clip. The Red Devils are Palladino-ruthless, efficient and make you pay for any mistakes there. Devils win in a squeaker, 8-7.

No. 12 Washington & Lee (14-3) at No. 13 Lynchburg (12-4) - Saturday, 4 p.m. (at Salem, Va.)

COYNE: I think we can go ahead and assume that the winner of this one is a lock for the NCAA tourney, regardless of how the finals plays out against Roanoke (which we'll assume beats Randy-Mac). If it was anything like the regular season matchup, folks in Salem, Va., are in for a treat.

W&L had that first meeting in the bag, leading 8-3 entering the fourth quarter, only to watch Lynchburg score five straight, before Campbell Armstrong struck in overtime to give the Hornets the win. It was mildly reminiscent of Roanoke's epic comeback against Lynchburg a couple of years ago. The Bugs looked a little wobbly during their loss to Hampden-Sydney, scoring only eight goals, so Joe LaSala and his back-linemates hold steady this time. Generals, 11-10.

CENSER: Since that Washington &Lee win, the Hornets have struggled, going 4-3 and limping into the ODAC semis.

Jac's right. Washington and Lee, with goalie Warren Berenis and a LaSala-led defense isn't a great matchup for a team struggling to put up goals.

Still, the Hornets are a proud group. Jon Gill and friends will defend. Max Voumard and the rest of the middies will scrap. They'll manufacture goals and fight the Gennies for every inch of real estate.

I'll bet on those constants. Lynchburg, 8-7.

Coyne's Pick

Western New England (10-6) at Endicott (13-5) - Saturday, 4 p.m.

COYNE: Only one Commonwealth Coast Conference team can advance to the NCAAs, and this one determines who. These two met 10 days ago, and it took a mind-boggling performance from Sam Ozycz (27-for-28 faceoffs, 26 ground balls) and an outstanding night by goalie Cameron Bell (16 saves) for Endicott to pull out just a 13-12 road victory. Is it really possible that both could come close to replicating those numbers?

You know John Klepacki will be throwing some kind of wrinkle into the faceoff game, likely a pole at the dot and another on the wing, and the Golden Bears will cash in a couple more shots, of which they had nearly 20 more than the Gulls in the first outing. Endicott earned the home field advantage for this pivotal game, but WNE won't get burned again. Bears, 12-10.

CENSER: What else is there to talk about but faceoffs? Personally, I hate gimmicks at the dot. How is a guy who has never really taken faceoffs actually expected to make things competitive, doing something he almost never does and against one of the premier technicians in the country?

Anyway, no matter what the Golden Bears have in the game plan, I'm not sure much will change. Ozycz continues to be Ozycz, as the Gulls scrape past the Golden Bears. Endicott, 11-9.

Censer's Pick

Clarkson (9-5) at No. 16 St. Lawrence (10-4) – Friday, 2 p.m.

CENSER: After a heartbreaking one goal loss to RIT, I think I'm officially ready to jump on the Larrie bandwagon. They have an elite defense with longpole Josh Robinson and short-stick Cam Scullen causing chaos between the lines and close defenders Brian Wilberand Jack Roberts providing the backline muscle.

I think Clarkson is built pretty similarly. Just without some of the same weapons trending towards the offensive end. St. Lawrence, 7-4.

COYNE: The math looks pretty easy here. Clarkson has played five ranked teams — including St. Lawrence — and lost to all of them. In fact, the Golden Knights only have three wins against teams over .500. Even though the Saints completely dominated Clarkson in the first go around, I think the Knights catch SLU eyeing a rematch with RIT in the Liberty finals and pull the stunner. Clark bars, 7-6.

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