It’s May, and that means it’s time for a series of Ron’s View reports on the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament. The opening round will be played this weekend, with four games Saturday and four games Sunday. Each day, ESPN2 will broadcast one game and ESPNU the other three. Last year, this arrangement (and the addition of ESPNU to our cable package) made it possible for me to watch parts of all eight games. I don’t expect to be so lucky this weekend, if for no other reason because Sunday is Mother’s Day and Gail hasn’t chosen to celebrate by watching four lacrosse games.
Each year, when I turn to lacrosse, I review some essential background. Here goes.
First, the tournament format. Sixteen teams are invited, with eight of them seeded 1 through 8. Each seeded team gets to play its opening round game at home against one of the unseeded teams. These are the eight games taking place this weekend. The eight winners play their quarterfinal games the following weekend. If all goes to form and the eight seeds win, then they pair up in the traditional way, with #1 playing #8, #2 playing #7, and so on. These games are played on neutral sites. This year, four teams travel to the University of Maryland to play, while the other four go to Indianapolis. The semifinals and final are played the weekend after, which is always arranged to be Memorial Day weekend, with semis on Saturday and final on Memorial Day Monday. In recent years, the final weekend games have rotated between Boston (well, Foxborough), Philadelphia, and Baltimore, at the stadiums of the Patriots, Eagles, and Ravens.
Second, some history. Until the last decade or so, seven teams dominated the tournament, winning every championship among them and almost always supplying the runner-up as well: Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Virginia, North Carolina, Cornell, and Maryland. That the dominant teams are from Atlantic coast states is no surprise. The game has historically been played at the high school level mostly along the Atlantic coast (especially Maryland and Long Island) and in upstate New York, a close match to the locations of these schools. But now the game is going national. Even here in the Seattle area, it has become popular among local high schools. And with westward growth, other schools are becoming powers, ranked and seeded highly. Some of the new powers, such as Duke, are still in the traditional areas of strength. Others, such as Notre Dame and Denver, aren’t.
Of course, there are many other Atlantic coast school that have traditions of excellence, such as Navy, Loyola, and Hofstra, to mention three in the Maryland and Long Island lacrosse hotbeds. Navy was runner-up twice, in 1974 and 2005. Loyola was runner-up in 1990.
Lately things are changing. Duke, most notably, was runner-up in 2005 and 2007 before breaking through to win the championship in 2010. (Yes, Duke’s story is complicated, with the premature end to their season in 2006. The surprise may be not that they broke the seven-school-stranglehold on the championship, but that they didn’t do so sooner.) Notre Dame was runner-up to Duke in 2010, in the only final not to include one of the super seven. And last year, Loyola had its own breakthrough, earning the first seed and beating in-state rival Maryland in the final.
Which brings us to this year, and still more change at the top. I caught parts of two conference championship games last weekend. In the Big East championship Saturday, Syracuse closed out its history as a member of the Big East by beating Villanova. And on Sunday, Yale won its second consecutive Ivy title by beating Princeton, which had won over Cornell in a dramatic overtime semifinal. This was not a good year for Princeton. It needed the win and the Ivy championship to earn an automatic NCAA tournament bid. In basketball bracket language, it was a bubble team, and the loss burst its bubble.
That evening, the NCAA announced the bracket. No Princeton. No Virginia. And no Johns Hopkins! The lacrosse world is changing. In their place, new powers in the making snagged seeds two through four. I mentioned Notre Dame and Denver. Also Ohio State, which edged Denver 11-10 in their conference championship game the day before, scoring the winning goal with 24 seconds left.
Here are the seeds:
2. Notre Dame
3. Ohio State
5. North Carolina
8. Penn State
The other participants are
Though they’re not seeded, I’ve listed them in the order I assume the selection committee had in mind, with Yale playing #8 seed Penn State in the opening round, Cornell playing #7 seed Duke, and so on. The last two had records below .500, earning bids only because they were conference champions, thereby squeezing stronger teams out of the tournament.
There you have it. A tournament missing the three teams with the most championships after Syracuse. A tournament reflecting the westward shift of the game’s center of gravity. A tournament with only three of the traditional seven seeded. A new order.
I couldn’t convince Gail to head to Philadelphia for Memorial Day weekend. We’ll have to settle for TV. I’ll be watching as much as I can.