2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Is Syracuse really No. 1 or have we hit the Lax Ceiling?Before the season began, I was speaking at length with some folks very close to the Syracuse program. They were pretty down about the 2008 prospects for the Orange - far more than I. These folks were about as close as you could get to the picture and the picture was bleak, on the field and off. These particular friends of mine are seldom wrong and never when it comes to Syracuse. They are part of the very small percentage of people around the game that really know lacrosse talent relative to all the personnel in Division I. This is not a very good Syracuse team, relatively. I only bring this up because, while Syracuse (7-1) was ranked No. 1 in both the Nike/Inside Lacrosse media poll and the USILA coaches poll Monday, I don't think Syracuse is even close to a No. 1 team in 2008 (Note: The Sun has Syracuse No. 5 in its latest poll).
Duke, stacked with super seniors, is far and away the better club. Anything can happen in a lacrosse game and I can certainly envision a Syracuse win over Duke just like I can see a Virginia win over Duke or a Georgetown win over Duke, but I think that seven or eight times out of 10, Duke would pound each of these squads. I know that Georgetown already beat Duke. Like I said, losses happen. It was an upset. That's why we call them upsets, because the unlikely happens. It does not make the repeat any more likely and Duke is still a far better team than even the Hoyas (I really like the Hoyas, too).
By this point in every season, anomalous games exist that present contradictions in any form of rankings or polls. How the season is interpreted, or more specifically, which games are judged to be uncharacteristic or inconsistent, help to determine the entire outcome of the season in college lacrosse. Which is the bigger upset or inconsistency: Hofstra over Johns Hopkins, 8-7; UMass over Hofstra, 8-4; Loyola over UMass, 15-1; Siena over Loyola, 5-4; or No. 46 St. Joe's (Lax Power rankings) over Siena, 8-7? The answer to this and a few similar quandaries are paramount to the discussion. I used the word "inconsistent" to describe these anomalous games to make a point. In a few weeks, the NCAA selection committee, made up of college coaches, will be forced to answer the question above, ranking the upsets if you will, by relevance and consistency. Their decisions might be consistent with current and pertinent data, like the conundrum of upsets above. Or, they might be consistent with tradition and with long-established teams, which is natural and predictable, even understandable, albeit wrong and contemptible.
The committee won't be so biased toward the traditional champions on purpose, we trust. The predisposition is built into the tools they use in their process. They are armed with the polls, voted on by the media and their fellow college coaches, which are flawed by two major shortcomings. First, every poll result, all season long, is pinned to the speculation of the preseason guessfest where the traditional power teams always start in the pole position. Secondly, even now, weeks into the season, most of the voters in the polls have never seen Hofstra or UMass play, much less Siena or St. Joe's and every one of the 30 or so teams in between.
This phenomenon, for lack of a better word, is instrumental in the rise of the 2008 Syracuse squad, just for example. More importantly, it is a principle reason, along with an unfair scheduling regime, for the annual ascendance of the same exact teams to the top ten and ultimately, the tournament. It stifles the growth of our game as a fan sport, which it is soooooo not. On an average day, the Orioles' crowd crushes the combined attendance of Baltimore college lacrosse attendance on the hottest showcase day of the spring. And you can throw in the city's defunct MLL and NLL teams. Even more current high school and youth lacrosse players will be sitting in Camden Yards than at Homewood, Unitas, etc.
Lacrosse's inaccessibility is the biggest reason, though not the only reason, I hypothesize, for the dearth of non-playing lacrosse fans and paying fans in general. Another factor is the notion, let alone the fact, that even in the most exciting years the best we can hope for in lacrosse is a Virginia-Hopkins-Syracuse-Princeton final (pick two). In 2000 I predicted the outcome of the 2050 NCAA men's lacrosse championship -- Syracuse 9, Princeton 8. Almost a decade later, I'll stand by that pick. Can you argue against it, other than to inject something about that 2049 Hopkins or Virginia recruiting class? In what other sport could this be possible?
I mean, think about it. For the last few years, our great hope to finally get some diversity at the top spot after 30+ years of this incestuous celebration are teams like Duke or Cornell? How much more accessible does the game seem if Duke breaks the Lax Ceiling? In Philadelphia, that's worth 50 bucks, Winthorpe.
This has been going on for some time, too. In 1981, the all-powerful sports franchise, the University of North Carolina was our Cinderella in lacrosse. Growth of the game was the talk of the day. We thought every pretty good team would start taking turns and the sport was on its way! A decade later, Princeton rode in on a plaid horse and rescued the sport from obscurity, blasting all those elitist impressions.
There is a chance that a Duke, Cornell, Maryland or maybe even a Navy or Army might break through soon. But, in fact, all these teams have actually won championships, before the NCAA era, and would not expand the sport very much at all, by the numbers. As of 2008 there have been only four champions in the last 17 years, five in the last 29 years adding UNC. If Cornell won this year, we'd have six champions in the last 31 years and if Maryland won we'd have seven in the last 36. If Army or Navy were to win it all in 2008, we'd be dominated by nine schools over the past 55 seasons. Rensselaer shared the 1952 championship with Virginia and those 10 schools own the last 76 years. Only six others -- St. John's, Lehigh, Swarthmore, Stevens Tech, Harvard and Yale -- have worn the crown since 1881. The sport has serious barriers to entry.
So how does the Syracuse ascent to No. 1 in the polls this week denote, forecast, even precipitate the annual late-season shift toward traditional powers moving up the polls and creating the "same old same old" that's just too old?
Syracuse has done better than any of us thought in that preseason conversation. We were wrong about how they would fare, but at 7-1, they have not, in my opinion, earned a top four spot yet. They topped Army (7-2 and the 11th-ranked team on Lax Power) by a score of 8-7 and Georgetown (5-2, No. 9 on LP), 9-8, in two overtimes. They needed overtime again to beat Johns Hopkins (3-4, No. 14 on LP), 14-13, at Homewood and topped Loyola (4-4, No. 15 on LP), 13-8. They crushed Binghamton (2-4, No. 35 on LP), 16-2, Hobart (4-4, No. 17 on LP), 13-5, and Villanova (2-7 and No. 42 on LP), 21-6. These are all good wins, but none against teams currently ranked over No. 9 on Lax Power.
Syracuse's only loss is to Virginia, 14-13 in overtime in Baltimore to open the season at the Face-Off Classic. Virginia is 9-1 and Lax Power's fifth-ranked team, while they rank Syracuse No. 4. Lax Power is a statistical ranking done by computers so that can happen. But we humans can see that since Virginia beat Syracuse and has only lost to Maryland.The RRRR rankings on E-Lacrosse have never ranked Syracuse over Virginia this year.
Even the Lax Power numbers, the fairest in the game, are pegged to some existing power structure. What would be ultimately fair would be to employ some wiz kid like the guy on the popular television show "Numbers," who is unlikely to know the first thing about lacrosse. After the season was completed, our genius would take the data that consists of the full "bodies of work" of each of the teams into consideration. The data, analyzed logically in a vacuum with no pre-existing notions would tell us who was truly the best and the second and on down or would decide if that separation didn't actually exist. Of course, what would really be fair would be to let that same wiz kid design the next year's schedule based on equity and discovering a true hierarchy through the games played. Because, even the wiz kid would be caught up on our anomalies!
I wish I had the full solution to the problem. Maybe you have some ideas. I'd like to hear them. I think the solution lies somewhere between the practical and the radical. Letting the naive wiz kid do the tournament seeding is as impractical as moving to a best of three series format in the playoffs to derive a real champion in our upset-friendly game. Many games could be added to the season as another possible path toward better and fairer ranking data, but this is also not viable. I have heard the last two discussed for years.
I favor the following two ideas, although each would have its detractors. The NCAA is the host, facilitator and arbitrator of college lacrosse's first-class postseason tournament. As such, they should be involved in the assurance of the fairness of that tournament from the beginning of each season, playing a role in fair and equitable scheduling. Each team of the 57 in Div. I lacrosse should have the opportunity to play a schedule that could, in the best-case scenario, result in postseason play.
Expanding the NCAA tournament field to 32 teams would at once provide equity to the ever large and muddled group of bubble teams that cannot and are not evaluated well enough for fair exclusion. Every year when we seed 16 teams, we acknowledge that three or four bubble teams get the shaft, and live with it. If I am correct in my thinking, perhaps 10 or more teams, every year, are left out of a field they have earned the right to join.
Like any discussion of procedural changes in legislative government, these are the hardest things to get started. The very people who have to get involved and make change are the ones entrenched or at least accustomed to the old and ineffective ways. In this case it's the fairness of the gentleman's game at stake so we should expect reasonable consideration of change.
April 3, 2008