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NCAA lacrosse favorite is anyone’s guess

Champion will come from a wide-open field

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2012

Loyola is the No. 1 seed. Massachusetts is unbeaten. Virginia is the defending national champion. Duke, Johns Hopkins and Notre Dame enjoyed strong stretches in the regular season.

There are plenty of contenders in this year's NCAA lacrosse tournament. But is there a true favorite?

It's an emphatically new question in the sport.

"It seems to me that if you're a team in this tournament, you have some things to look to where you can say 'Why not us?' " Maryland coach John Tillman said.

Indeed, why not the unseeded Terrapins (9-5), who made a run to the national final from a similar situation last May? Why not Patriot League champ Lehigh (14-2), which Maryland must visit Sunday night?

Why not North Carolina, 19 years and counting removed from its last visit to Memorial Day weekend? Why not Yale, the surprise Ivy League champ which ended a two-decade postseason drought? Why not Massachusetts (15-0), which was handed the No. 6 seed thanks to a weak schedule?

"I think without a doubt, it's the most wide-open tournament I've ever seen," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said.

The fifth-seeded Cavaliers (11-3) play host to Princeton (11-4) on Sunday. In most years, a pairing of two traditional powers would be the most fascinating game of the first round. This year, there's plenty of competition.

Any bracket possesses oodles of possible permutations. This time around, most of them also are plausible in a year when no clear-cut favorite emerged in the regular season.

"You can get a great seed at No. 2 or No. 8," said Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, whose second-seeded Blue Jays open the tournament Sunday against Stony Brook (7-9). "It's more about how you match up and how you practice."

No team exemplifies the wide-open nature of this particular field than Loyola (14-1), which began the season unranked. Now, the Greyhounds are just the second team to earn a No. 1 seed after missing the tournament a year prior. The other was 2007 Duke, which couldn't play in the tournament the previous year because its season was canceled mid-spring.

Unpredictability rose in recent years. No. 2 seeds were eliminated in the first round in 2007 and 2010. The top seed succumbed in the quarterfinals for only the second time in the tournament's 42-year history last spring. Five straight No. 1 seeds have fallen short of a title, with the last four failing to play on Memorial Day.

Those were all, to some degree, surprises. Little, besides perhaps a Loyola or Johns Hopkins loss in the first round, would seem particularly startling this year.

"I guess we're going to try and beat the trend," said Loyola coach Charley Toomey, whose team faces Canisius (6-7) on Saturday. "I guess we've broken a lot of trends this year. We weren't even supposed to be here. I'm not going to worry about that with this group. That's past history."

So, it seems, are plenty of the sport's facets. As recently as 2005 (Hopkins) and 2006 (Virginia), a team entered the tournament as an unbeaten and obvious favorite and meticulously imposed its respective style on the postseason.

It's unlikely it happens this year. But more to the point, it's nearly impossible to discern just who possesses the ability to do so.

"There's no team like that 2006 Virginia team," Starsia said. "Hopkins has shown that at times. Loyola has a really nice team, but they don't appear to be a dominant team, a team that can blow people up. Notre Dame's had some close calls. Duke's looked very pedestrian at times. The lack of a dominant team gives everybody hope. I think you'd be hard-pressed [to pick a champion], though you may as well take a try at it. If you took 10 chances, you might get one right."

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