Entering last weekend, there were two slots open in the NCAA Tournament. Every bubble team -- except for Notre Dame -- lost last weekend. Colgate got steamrolled by Syracuse. Loyola fell to Hopkins on a controversial call. Towson slipped up against Delaware and then the Blue Hens couldn't get past Hofstra. Penn State lost a tight one to Georgetown. Army got blown out by Ohio State. Harvard lost to Dartmouth in three overtime periods. Albany lost to UMBC in the America East Final. They all failed to close the deal, and it created chaos on Sunday for the selection committee.
The committee seems enslaved by the selection criteria instead of using the criteria as a guideline. The goal should be to find reasons to allow the top 10 at-large teams into the NCAA Tournament (16 teams are invited, with six automatic bids to conference winners). The criteria, as written, are flawed: Strength of schedule is factored into two-thirds of the equation. The strength of schedule is part of the Ratings Percentage Index calculations, and then it's used again as its own component. That's redundant.
The NCAA committee uses BCS-like logic. Why even use humans if you're going to rely so heavily on the numbers (RPI and SOS) to pick the field? Just pick the best teams. Ask yourself: Who's playing better right now, Loyola or Harvard? Who'd win if Towson played Harvard today?
I see inconsistency in the selection rationale. One year, the focus of the selection committee is quality wins, and the next year it's strength of schedule. And I'm not alone in my criticism.
"I'd say it is a little bit interesting to sort out," Georgetown coach Dave Urick told The Washington Times. "The committee changes their focus sometimes. The emphasis changes, and I'm not sure exactly what you read into this one."
Maryland a No. 2 seed? The Terps are 10-4, with losses to Bucknell and Navy. Meanwhile, Hofstra is 16-1 and hasn't lost since Feb. 26. Johns Hopkins at No. 4? That's hard to fathom because the Blue Jays lost a head-to-head game with Princeton. The Tigers lost to Syracuse, Cornell, Hofstra and Virginia -- those are better losses than Maryland's. And Cornell at No. 6? The Ivy League sends four teams to the NCAA Tournament (the conference was highly rated in RPI and SOS this year) yet the Big Red get dumped from No. 3 in the Inside Lacrosse Media Poll to No. 6 on the bracket. And Harvard? Don't even get me started. Loyola, Penn State and Towson would all beat Harvard by three goals. The Crimson are 6-6 and have lost three of their last four games.
And poor Virginia. Congratulations on your undefeated season. A job well done. But we're not going to let you play the 16th-rated team, Providence. We'll send them to Hofstra (cost considerations) and you'll have to play a significantly better Notre Dame team. That's just not right, and it's not the first time this has happened.
But there's nothing we can do about it now -- the brackets are complete. A couple of quick observations:
The top half of the bracket is loaded with historical powers Virginia, Syracuse, Navy and Johns Hopkins. In the last four years, the teams in the bracket's top half have accounted for 11 of 16 championship weekends (i.e., the national semifinals). Johns Hopkins has a streak of four in a row, Virginia and Syracuse have made three of the last four, and Navy lost in the 2004 finals.
Virginia is clearly the team to beat. The Cavaliers have been dominant -- they are blowing away the competition by an average of eight goals per game. In 35 NCAA Tournaments, the No. 1 seed has won the title 15 times. Ten other times the No. 1 seed has lost in the championship game. Nine times, the No. 1 seed has lost in the semifinals. The only No. 1 seed not to reach the semifinals was Loyola in 1999. (The Orange lost to No. 8 Syracuse, 17-12, in the quarterfinals.)
The best game on the board is Navy at Georgetown. The Hoyas are 10-2 yet fall into the dreaded eighth seed. They beat Navy 9-5 on April Fool's Day in Annapolis. Ground balls and face-offs are obvious in this rematch, but more important, Navy has to succeed in three key areas if they are going to advance. The Mids cannot allow Georgetown to run, they have to handle the Hoyas' defensive pressure and Richie Meade's team has to shoot 25 percent. Meanwhile, the Hoyas have to account for Jon Birsner and his 35 assists. Do they cover him with Reyn Garnett or Jerry Lambe? My vote is for Lambe. Navy's Matt Russell is the wild card in this game.
From a style standpoint, the UMass at Cornell game is riveting. The Big Red have struggled on face-offs while UMass's Jake Deane can be a handful. Will Minutemen coach Greg Cannella bump Jack Reid up from close defense to cover Joe Boulukos? MLL scouts will want to watch that battle. And what will Cornell's coach, Jeff Tambroni, have up his sleeve for the nation's best dodging attackman, Sean Morris? The performance of the goaltenders looms large. Matt McMonagle allows only 5.39 goals per game while saving 64 percent, while UMass freshman "Doc" Schneider is sixth in the nation in save percentage at 62 percent.
UMBC at Princeton features two of the all-time great coaches, Don Zimmerman of UMBC and Bill Tierney at Princeton. Nobody is hotter right now than UMBC's attack. Brendan Mundorf had five goals against Albany, while Drew Westervelt had six goals and three assists in the America East final. But Princeton's defense is its strength. Dan Cocoziello, Zach Jungers, John Bennett and goalie Alex Hewit have had moments of brilliance this spring. The Retrievers' goalie, Jeremy Blevins, doesn't get the ink that Hewit does, but he is rock-solid between the pipes. This will be a chess match -- the winner will be the team who clamps down and wins face offs.
Maryland hosts Denver on Saturday. It'll be the Pioneers' first trip east for the big dance. Terps' attackman Joe Walters now sits atop the all-time scoring list at College Park with 150 goals, surpassing Matt Hahn. Walters has played in two championship weekends, but is not about to overlook the invaders from the west.
"They use a style of defense we have never seen," Walters says. "It's very unorthodox. They just double everything, the goalie comes out and triple teams. Our scout defense gave us a great 'Denver look' yesterday at practice."
Mental preparation is much more important than physical preparation this week. The key is to find the right balance of knowing your opponent without getting away from your bread and butter.
The end of the semester can also mean academic stress. It's important not to bypass sleep while trying to walk the tight rope of preparing for finals and lacrosse simultaneously.
Playoffs also mean a sense of urgency -- in preparation this week, and in your physical and mental readiness. A few words of advice for everybody: Don't look at the brackets. You have one game, not four. And within that game, don't look ahead. Take it one play at a time. The team that can bear down and snag the next ground ball, complete the next pass, make a successful check and slide, that can focus and block the next shot -- that's the team that will advance.
I'll be in Virginia on Saturday for the Notre Dame game on (ESPNU, 3:30 p.m. ET), then will fly to Syracuse on Sunday for the Orange's playoff contest with Harvard (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET). Syracuse University has commencement ceremonies in the Dome earlier on Sunday. The 'Never Graduate' network will televise four NCAA playoff games this weekend -- UMass at Cornell (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET) and Providence vs. Hofstra (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET) are the other games slated for TV.
Also, be sure to check out Toyota Lacrosse Weekly at the following times on ESPNU: Thursday at 6:30 p.m. ET and 11 p.m. ET; Friday at 9 a.m. ET and 1:30 p.m ET, and Saturday at 8 a.m. ET and 12:30 p.m. ET.
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