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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Rankings and examining the NCAA selection process

The Division I men's lacrosse NCAA tournament field includes 16 teams. Seven conference champions will receive automatic bids. They are:

1. Colgate - Patriot League - Colgate was the tournament winner; Navy, Army and Bucknell are all viable at-large possibilities.

2. Loyola - Eastern College Athletic Association - No conference tournament; Georgetown is a viable at-large possibility.

3. TBD - American East Conference - Tournament is next week; UMBC won the regular-season title; UMBC and the Albany-Stony Brook winner on May 3 are viable at-large possibilities.

4. TBD - Colonial Athletic Conference - Tournament is next week; Drexel and Hofstra share the regular-season title and both are viable at-large possibilities. Towson or Delaware will need to win the conference tournament for entry.

5. TBD - Great Western Lacrosse League - Tournament is next week; Notre Dame, Ohio State and Denver share the regular-season title. All three are viable at-large possibilities. Quinnipiac could get in if they win the conference tournament.

6. TBD - Ivy League - Cornell will share the title with the Brown-Princeton winner on May 3. There is no tournament. All three are viable at-large possibilities. With a win over Harvard next week, Dartmouth should be also.

7. TBD - Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference - The tournament is next week; Providence and Canisius share the regular-season crown. Manhattan and VMI could gain entry if they win the conference tournament. None are viable at-large possibilities.

The ACC is a conference but, with only four teams, has no automatic bid. The Blue Devils were the tournament and regular-season champions. They, along with Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina are viable at-large possibilities. Syracuse and Johns Hopkins are independent teams that are not in a conference but are viable at-large possibilities. After the automatic bids are awarded and those teams are set aside, nine more teams are picked as at-large participants based on a few things. They are (in order):

1. Results against ranked teams (according to the RPI rankings). RPI rankings are a median of data including a team's Division I winning percentage, their opponents' records and their opponents' strength of schedule.

2. Strength of schedule rating. The committee takes each team's 10 highest-ranking opponents (RPI again) and creates an index from the average of those.

3. RPI ratings.

Seem redundant? This data is more inbred than European Royalty. But lacrosse is a small world and if this incestuous input doesn't give them enough information, they are allowed to finally look at objective data like head-to-head competition and results against common foes. It is at this late point in the process that they employ the first logic not based on the RPI.

No outside polls or data are to be considered. The blaring contradictions to committee-think contained in the outside data like other polls, E-Lacrosse's RRRR rankings or even blogs like this one would slow the selection process or do something worse, I am assuming.

The selection committee is also allowed to use rankings and advice from regional advisory committees. These are people who have, likely, actually seen the teams play - not just the ones being considered, but the ones who perhaps should be. It seems like a good idea but they come in late like Democratic Party super-delegates and hopefully don't yield that kind of sway over the process.

Once the teams are selected, they need to be seeded. The top eight teams are ordered meritoriously. The rest are not. The second eight are placed, in no order of accomplishment, to make for a cheap and entertaining tournament. Teams are put where they have less distance to travel, and if possible, where the matchups will draw an audience. Should a fair committee be thinking about gate sales and travel requirements? Do I need to answer that?

When the committee is not seeding teams based on merit, we are allowed to ask if the growth of lacrosse might be just as important to consider in the process as the size of a first-round crowd in a given year. But when, and if, the committee starts looking ahead at the potential crowds for quarterfinals and even the Final Four based on the probable outcomes of their seedings, that the system gets corrupt. Not FAA corrupt. Not New Jersey corrupt. Not corrupt enough to pick a champion, but close enough. Just allowing for the subjective placement of the bottom eight "non-seeded" teams provides enough ambiguity to breed suspicion in a sport divided geographically and by postseason haves and have-nots. Teams must play a minimum of 10 Div. I opponents during the regular season to be selected to the tournament. This is why teams like Mount Saint Mary's, St. John's and Presbyterian score games against top ten teams while bubble-possible teams like Denver, Ohio State and Bucknell can't schedule enough big games to help them reach at-large consideration during most years. In 1996 Bucknell went undefeated and was left at home.

You will notice that most top teams have a schedule formula of 50 percent top ten and 50 percent can't lose. This ensures a winning record if you just beat one top ten team and don't lose to Bellarmine or Vermont. Take any top team's schedule and play out the worst-case-within-reason scenario and you will see it. It is pretty impossible for a Hopkins, Maryland, Duke, Princeton, Virginia, UNC or Syracuse to miss the show. They have to have historically bad seasons to get close, and in the case of the 2008 Johns Hopkins team, that won't even do it.

The only time the formula does not work is when, like I said, the team loses to much lesser teams after dropping literally all of their games against top ten teams. Teams must have a .500 or better record against all opponents for at-large selection. This is why 5-8 Syracuse did not get in last year while they may have been a better team than some who did. Champions of lesser conferences are always bumping better teams so we are used to the possibility of seeing a lesser team gain entry. It's a part of offering automatic bids.

The use of this formula is inevitable as long as the teams have the ability to call their own shots on scheduling. You cannot blame someone for playing by the rules. But the rules would be hard to change. Now that television exposure comes with those top ten games, it would be hard to pull big games away from anyone. True growth of the game has always been taboo to the big four and quite a few others who frequent the top ten. Title IX is all that keeps these teams from competing with Michigan, Miami, UCLA and the rest of the real college sports world.

So next week, as the last games are played I will break down the committee's only real options based on their own criteria. With exception of some more subjective calls we might differ on, it will be easy to pick the top eight. The next eight we can pick with some accuracy but not seed because that is totally subjective. You can get a head start on the math yourself by using a couple of Lax Power tools: results against teams ranked by RPI, the SOS ratings and the RPI ratings. Remember these are the top three factors used by the committee. Have at it and let us know what you think.

The RRRR Men's Division I Lacrosse Rankings for April 28, 2008

Duke* 15-1
Syracuse 12-1
Virginia* 12-3
Maryland 8-5
Georgetown 9-3
North Carolina 8-5
UMBC 10-3
Notre Dame 11-2
Cornell 10-3
Drexel 12-3
Johns Hopkins 6-5
Ohio State 9-4
Denver 10-5
Brown 10-3
Colgate 10-5
Navy 9-5
Bucknell 10-5
Army 9-5
Loyola 7-5
Albany 7-7
Dartmouth 6-7
Princeton 7-5
Stony Brook 7-6
Hofstra 8-5
Hobart 8-5
Towson 5-9
Harvard 6-7

* Duke players and a Virginia player were given extra eligibility by the NCAA, creating "super-seniors." In my opinion, this gives them an unfair advantage over all other contending teams in 2008.

April 29, 2008
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