It’s so, so tempting to pick chalk across the first round of the NCAA lacrosse tournament.
After all, this is a generally well-rewarded strategy. Home teams have done exceptionally well (41-7) since the field expanded to 16 in 2003:
2003: 7-1 (Georgetown won at Rutgers)
2005: 7-1 (Cornell won at No. 7 Towson)
2006: 7-1 (Massachusetts won at No. 6 Cornell)
2007: 6-2 (Delaware won at No. 2 Virginia; UMBC won at No. 7 Maryland)
2008: 6-2 (Navy won at No. 4 North Carolina; Ohio State won at No. 8 Cornell)
So chances are, we’ll see some surprise – and maybe two – this weekend.
Thing is, the top four seeds are probably the four best teams in the field. That sounds sort of silly, but no one realistically believed North Carolina was better than Johns Hopkins (or Maryland, for that matter) last season. That chart demonstrated how that worked out for the Tar Heels.
So I’ve promised myself one rule: No chalk, at least not pure chalk in this little exercise. But the point is to be right, so it’s a matter of choosing the right upset.
This will get broken into two parts: Saturday and Sunday, thus ensuring this post doesn’t run too long. Onward:
No. 8 JOHNS HOPKINS vs. BROWN, noon
Yes, the Blue Jays have their lowest seed since … forever. Indeed, the lowest the Hop had ever been placed was No. 7 before this year.
But the Blue Jays still play at home. They play against a team making its first tournament appearance in more than a decade. And they play the team that was probably the last one into the field.
Oh, and they’ve won 22 straight May games at Homewood. Won 14 straight NCAA games at Homewood.
Brown, meanwhile, has a really good goalie in Jordan Burke. Hopkins counters with shooters who either launch it as hard as anyone (Kyle Wharton) or rely on precision (Steven Boyle) or can stick it from outside (Mike Kimmel) or have a remarkable knack for timely goals (Brian Christopher).
So Burke’s going to have to deal with that, and his team just got clobbered by Princeton – probably the best team the Bears saw all season. This might not end well.
Prediction: Hopkins 12-6. Most years, the pick would be Hop 10-3. But the Blue Jays can and do score, and their defense isn’t as slick. Assuming Burke doesn’t have a record-setting day, Hopkins will move along.
No. 6 NORTH CAROLINA vs. UMBC, 2:30
The next two weeks will be a test of whether the new Carolina is any different than the old Carolina.
Old Carolina would do things like lose at home in the first round. Of course, old Carolina would also not win a game in the ACC tournament, and that’s what this year’s crew actually managed to do for the first time since 1996.
That accomplishment alone should insulate the Tar Heels against the clucking that would come with a first-round upset – a possibility that is very real.
UMBC dropped off the radar after its baffling loss at Hartford. But it still has an elite midfield, it still has a quality goalie in Jeremy Blevins and it still has a top-shelf coach in Don Zimmerman.
This is a team that won at Maryland in the 2007 tournament and a team that nearly won at Virginia last May. It really wouldn’t be a true upset, because the Retrievers have another good game or two in them.
Prediction: UMBC 11-10. Everyone seems to forget that North Carolina is down its starting goalie, too. The team that beat Hopkins isn’t quite the same team it is today. And UMBC has demonstrated it can play up to opponents (like Princeton) and down to lesser lights (like Hartford and Binghamton). The Retrievers might not be a final four team, but getting a win here is doable.
No. 5 CORNELL vs. HOFSTRA, 5
This is perhaps the game I’m least comfortable with this weekend. Both teams beat Princeton. Both teams are well-coached. Both teams suffered aggravating first-round losses last year. Both teams suffered puzzling losses to rising teams late this season.
So some similarities are here. But it seems like the sort of game that the slightly better team’s strength and weaknesses will determine the outcome. Hofstra will probably play reasonably well, but Cornell (with its defeats of Princeton and Duke) has demonstrated it probably has a higher ceiling.
The Big Red probably can count on good faceoff play, slick stick skills and pinpoint shooting. It might also receive shaky goalie play, which has a way of negating a lot of things over the course of an afternoon.
Prediction: Cornell 12-10. Goalie play will zap the Big Red, but not this time around. Home-field doesn’t matter much for Cornell in the postseason, and guys like Max Seibald provide a bit of a talent edge. The Big Red could wind up doing what Villanova did to the Pride – build a lead, then monopolize possession.
No. 3 DUKE vs. NAVY, 7:30
What’s the worst sort of team for Navy to run into? Well, Hopkins. Always Hopkins.
But after that bit of history? Probably one capable of pressuring the Midshipmen on a consistent basis. And the top three seeds in this year’s field can all do that – including Duke.
The Blue Devils not only play sound defense, they also are a rather potent bunch on offense despite their losses from last season. There’s lots of guys to keep an eye on, and while none of them are named Danowski or Greer, that doesn’t mean Ned Crotty can’t single-handedly destroy an opponent. Just ask Virginia.
It shouldn’t be discounted that Navy is playing as well as it has at this time of year as it has since 2004. At the same time, there is an appropriate time to re-evaluate the Mids’ wins in that stretch. Navy went 5-1 down the stretch, with only one win over a postseason team (Maryland). The Mids beat no bad teams, yet no great ones, either.
Last year, the matchup was right for an upset. North Carolina was overseeded, and Navy was eager to validate its at-large selection and get back to Annapolis for the quarterfinals. The chance to return home for the quarterfinals exists again, but this is a much nastier matchup to have to deal with.
Prediction: Duke 13-9. Navy hasn’t made a habit of scoring more than 10 goals (not since March 7). And Duke, while not its past juggernaut, played three games against tournament teams in April and averaged 15.3 goals.
Navy is not built to win a shootout. And if Duke has its way, the tempo will be appropriately pushed to make things move faster than the Mids would like. The advantage goes to Duke, which has the ability to summon a fast start and make things ugly in a hurry.