- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2011

One of the hallmarks of most postseason events is the quirky matchups a bracket can create.

This year’s NCAA lacrosse tournament is a notable exception.

The curiosity over the 16-team field unveiled Sunday night centered immediately on a first-round date between eighth-seeded North Carolina (10-5) and Maryland (10-4), a meeting of teams plenty familiar with each other thanks to the quirks included in the NCAA’s guidelines.

“Maryland-North Carolina? I don’t think anybody had that one on their early docket,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “I’m very surprised to see that one. As I’ve told you guys on a number of occasions, the ACC games, when we go through that four-game stretch, that’s a grind. … That’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out battle in Chapel Hill.”

None of the other seven pairings in the tournament is a regular-season rematch. The Terrapins and Tar Heels played twice; North Carolina won 11-6 at Byrd Stadium on March 26, and Maryland earned a 7-6 victory April 22 in the ACC semifinals.

It is the first conference rematch in the first round since 2003, when Georgetown beat Rutgers two weeks after a regular-season meeting.

The driving force in the pairing was the NCAA’s reticence to force more than two teams to fly to their first-round destinations. With Denver - which will play host to the first game west of the Mississippi River in the tournament’s 41-season history - and Notre Dame earning home games, the committee needed someone within 400 miles of Chapel Hill to make the trip.

Dermot Coll, an associate athletic director at Air Force and the selection committee chairman, said last week the NCAA did not have a flight restriction. Late Sunday, he clarified it was a guideline, but noted the competitive balance of the tournament provided incentive for the committee to create a conference pairing.

“In my mind, it was a true [8-9] matchup,” Coll said. “We prefer not to have [conference teams meeting]. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to move some things around and not have that first-round game.”

The committee couldn’t do so, forcing Maryland to play on the road to open the tournament for the second time in three years. The alternative - a possible trip to Denver - wasn’t especially appealing, either.

“Going to Carolina was going to be tough and going to Denver was going to be tough,” said Maryland coach John Tillman. “Carolina just beat the No. 2 team in the country [Notre Dame], and it’s going to be a challenge. You look at that and go ‘Wow, it’s going to be tough.’ Going out to Denver, you have to deal with the altitude, the blazing hot and playing [Pioneers coach] Bill Tierney. Either one was going to require us to play well.”

The intrigue of Maryland-North Carolina obscures one of the tournament’s overarching themes, which is a sense there are few sure things beyond some of the first-round games. Top-seeded Syracuse is a logical favorite, and Cornell, Denver and Johns Hopkins haven’t lost since mid-March.

Then there’s the ACC, which has four contenders to reach Memorial Day weekend - but none seeded better than fifth.

None of them faces as arduous a path as Maryland, which would need a road victory and likely an upset of Syracuse to reach its first final four since 2006.

“With us, if we won every single game, we’d have made it very easy for the committee,” Tillman said. “We didn’t, and when you don’t do that, you end up being at the mercy of someone else.”

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