By Michael Spinner
Looking at the rosters alone, it would be hard to imagine that the Johns Hopkins Blue Jays will not be playing Memorial Day Weekend in the NCAA Final Four. In only his third season at the Hopkins helm, Head Coach Dave Pietramala has put together two of the finest recruiting classes in the country after inheriting a team that advanced to the semifinals for two years prior to his arrival. The Homewood faithful have been expecting a Championship run for some time now and there is a lot to indicate that 2003 could be their year. Hopkins is experienced, deep, and talented…and combined with a proven winner on the sidelines, the Blue Jays are a favorite.
That is, of course, if Hopkins makes it to the NCAA Tournament.
The chances of Johns Hopkins not being selected to play in the 2003 post-season are remote at best. But, looking at the new and shortened 2003 JHU schedule, it is possible that if Hopkins has key injuries or some bad luck, their season could end before it starts, not even advancing to the NCAA Tournament. Like I said, the likelihood is remote, but let's spin it for a minute!
In 2003, Johns Hopkins plays 11 games and within those 11 dates is a stretch of some of the toughest competition in all of Division I. By season's end, it is possible that Hopkins will have played as many as eight of the nation's top-10 or top-12 teams, including every National Champion for more than a decade. To qualify for a post-season berth, JHU has to win six games. It's a tough task for any team and Johns Hopkins probably has the team to win nine or ten games this regular season, but then again, with the parity we see in lacrosse these days, nothing is a given.
Hopkins opens the season on March 1 at Princeton in a game that could go either way. While Hopkins beat Princeton a year ago, the Tigers return an outstanding team after a run to the NCAA Finals and the results of this one is a toss-up. After a two-game swing with Albany and Pennsylvania, two teams Hopkins should beat, the Blue Jays embark on a five-game stretch against Syracuse, Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, and Maryland…three of which are on the road. JHU then plays a Navy team they should beat (but then again, Hopkins beat Navy by a goal in 2002), and finishes with Towson and Loyola, neither of which ever go easily to the cross-town rival.
JHU can not lose more than five games to be in the running for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but playing under the gun is nothing new for this team. The difference is that in 2003, an 11 game season leaves little room for error. A year ago, JHU finished the regular season 11-1, but five of their wins were one-goal victories. The Blue Jays got all of the breaks and could have easily finished 6-6…but even in that case they would have probably advanced because of strength of schedule. Gone from that schedule are Ohio State and Villanova-two teams Hopkins should have beaten. Penn is not a far cry from those two teams-but one less game is where things get tricky for Hopkins. If Johns Hopkins played an 11-game schedule in 2002 and lost all of the one-goal games they competed in, the Blue Jays would have been left out of the NCAA Tournament.
So what does all of this mean? Nothing until the Spring rolls around. But, it's November and all we can do is hypothesize.
Hopkins is in a fairly unique position because of their status as an NCAA Independent.
Contrast Johns Hopkins with the other elite teams:
What we're left with is a situation where Dave Pietramala and company are in every way laying it on the line. 11 games leaves very little room for any slip-ups, if any, and it is possible that Johns Hopkins is a major upset away from not being post-season eligible, even though they play possibly the toughest schedule in the country. A 6-5 Hopkins team advances to the post-season with few questions asked, but if the JHU schedule was more like 13 or 14 games with a few more Albanys and Penns as opponents, the Hopkins faithful could breathe a little bit easier.
- Syracuse-14 regular season games in 2002. The Orangemen, also independent, played most of the "big boys" but did not play the schedule that Johns Hopkins did as the only ACC opponent for 'Cuse was Virginia. Having Army, Air Force, Denver, Hobart, Brown, Rutgers, and Penn gave Syracuse a bit of a cushion if they did falter a bit against the top teams on their schedule, so even if the Orangemen had a .500 split against the toughest teams on their schedule they would have qualified for the post-season easily. Syracuse suffered a bit of an upset to Cornell and almost fell to Brown, but there was no doubt that the Orangemen were making the post-season. If Hopkins suffers an upset to a team like Penn, their hopes could be in serious doubt.
- Duke-Duke's 2002 is evidence of what could happen to John Hopkins in 2003. In 2002, the Blue Devils finished the regular season with a 5-6 record, but their two ACC Tournament wins against teams they'd already played allowed them to break .500 and advance to the post-season. Duke lost to Loyola, North Carolina, Georgetown, Princeton, Virginia, and Hofstra-only Hofstra does not appear on the Johns Hopkins schedule in 2003.
- Princeton, Georgetown, Loyola-All have the benefit of a Conference with an AQ, so they don't even need to finish .500 to get to the dance. They could conceivably win their leagues, lose to every non-league opponent, and still compete in May. This scenario is basically impossible for all, but the AQ gives them some scheduling flexibility-nevertheless, all three play impressive non-conference schedules to place them in good at-large bid standing.
- Virginia-Similar to Duke 2002. 11 regular season games in 2003 and at least one ACC Tournament game. Not a situation unlike what Johns Hopkins faces, but the ACC Tournament gives them a bit of a cushion because it's the possibility of two extra games against top competition and as we learned in 2002 with Duke, the selection committee obviously likes that. The Cavs have some breathing room with Drexel, Penn State, and Denver on the schedule, along with a very young Notre Dame team. If Virginia wins those four and wins four games against their elite opponents, they're in…so there is some room for error. If somehow Drexel pulls the major upset in March and Virginia rebounds to win the ACC Tournament, they make it to the NCAA Tournament. Hopkins has no such luxury.
- Maryland-Nearly identical to Virginia and Duke.
Credit Coach Pietramala for putting himself in the hot-seat. Hopkins plays only one mid-week game this season (Penn), allowing the coaching staff to prepare their team thoroughly, allowing any nagging injuries to heal completely during the week between games, and giving his team time to rest and study. Anybody who faces the Blue Jays in 2003 will see a well-rested and very prepared squad. Assuming no major upsets take place and no terrible slew of injuries hits Hopkins, they should advance to the post-season. With the talent Pietramala has assembled, 2003 could even be the year for the Hop.
But if the Blue Jays do slip up and somehow do not advance into May, Coach Petro will have a lot of questions to answer. It's going to be an exciting Spring!
Photos by John Strohsacker
November 5, 2002
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