The spring of 2002 was a harrowing time in college lacrosse. Automatic berths had finally almost fully seeped into the sport, and the size of the NCAA tournament was still stuck at 12.
Hofstra, at 11-3 and ranked sixth in the country, missed the tournament.
Maryland, at 9-4 with four one-goal losses (three in overtime), missed the tournament.
(Duke, at 7-6 and with a 14-6 loss at Hofstra a weekend before the selection show, got in. But that’s an old, old argument for another day).
The point was, it was plausible that both Hofstra and Maryland could have reached the final four. Both teams had one-goal losses to eventual semifinalist Hopkins. Maryland lost to Virginia (another semifinalist) by a goal. And it was scary that such teams didn’t have a place in the field.
The expansion to 16 teams eliminated that concern. Realistically, there has never been a team over the last seven years that could truly complain about its fate. At some point or another, everyone had their chances and either exploited them or fell short.
Still, this year’s Loyola team went 9-5, with all of its losses by a combined seven goals. And the Greyhounds might be the best team since 2002 to miss the tournament; certainly they have no unexplainable losses and played the likes of Syracuse, Notre Dame, Duke and Johns Hopkins particularly tough.
This isn’t an argument against the selection committee. The five-man group pored over the data, applied its criteria and spat out the bubble decision (Brown over Loyola) that it should have based on the numbers.
But for fun, I looked up the two or three best teams to miss the field each season, and Loyola might be the best of the bunch.
* Cornell (9-4) beat tournament teams Penn State and Dartmouth, but struggled against the best teams in the field (Syracuse, Princeton, Georgetown). This version of the Big Red would be a candidate if they hadn’t absorbed their losses by an average of seven goals.
* Duke (8-7) did take out Maryland in the ACC tournament, but dug a huge hole for themselves with too many losses.
* North Carolina (7-6) also beat Maryland, but also fell to UMBC and Navy in a year neither outfit was especially strong.
* Notre Dame (7-5) beat no one of substance and lost to a bad Loyola team.
* Brown (9-5) got off to a hot start but didn’t upend a particularly strong cast, then went 2-4 in the Ivy League. The Ivy was better than usual that season, but not so good that a 2-4 wasn’t an eyesore.
* Dartmouth (8-4) defeated Maryland in Florida, but also lost to Sacred Heart. That was good reason to nix the Big Green’s candidacy.
* Denver (9-5) lost to eventual “west” champion Fairfield on the final weekend of the regular season. The Pioneers also lost to .500ish Yale.
* Notre Dame (7-4) upended tournament team Penn State, but also fell to bubblers Dartmouth and Denver. Not a good case.
* Delaware (12-5) got zapped by Sacred Heart and didn’t have a top-flight victory. The Blue Hens rightfully had to wait another year to do some damage.
* Towson (8-6) was the best of the bubble teams in that season, topping Delaware, Loyola and UMBC. The Tigers also lost to Binghamton and then to Delaware in the conference tournament.
* Loyola (6-6) shocked Georgetown in mid-April and looked like a possible at-large candidate. But the Greyhounds turned around and lost to a lackluster Fairfield bunch, then clinched their miss with a season-ending loss to Hopkins.
* Colgate (11-5) had no notable victories (beating Syracuse in the Orange’s rare sub-.500 year did no good) and lost to 5-8 Penn State.
* Drexel (11-5) started strong with an upset of defending champ Virginia. The Dragons gave that back with a loss to Lehigh (which eventually went 4-9).
* Ohio State (9-5) absorbed four of its five losses against tournament teams (the other was to 11-4 Bucknell). But it didn’t do much of anything to enhance its resume.
* Georgetown (9-4) had the holy grail – a defeat of Duke – and also won at bubbler Navy, but a lousy league strength of schedule combined with a closing loss at Penn State did in the Hoyas.
* Drexel (13-4) beat league champ Hofstra but didn’t have much else going for it. Another team done in by schedule strength.
* Brown (11-3) simply didn’t have any quality victories, and losses to tournament teams Cornell, Denver and Hofstra. Beating a so-so Princeton team on the final weekend didn’t help.
So where does this year’s Loyola team stand. Probably right behind 2008 Georgetown. Given the emphasis placed on quality victories this season, it’s tough to believe the Hoyas would have been excluded if the criteria was applied the same way last spring.
Loyola has the look of that 2002 Maryland team. Like those Terps, the Greyhounds weren’t any fun to play and not once embarrassed themselves. They left no record they weren’t a good team.
There just wasn’t that one result to enter into the evidence that they were besides close losses. At some point, you’ve got to beat a really good team, and it just never happened for Loyola this season. If it had – against any of the five teams the Hounds lost to – there would be an extra Baltimore team playing on and Brown would be turning in its equipment today.