Unlike college hoops -- which pretty much gets all of its non-conference games out of the way before you stumble around the house with a goofy hat on your head on New Year's Eve, allowing for the bulk of a team's schedule to constitute games against conference opponents in which fans want to throw things at the opposition simply because they're the opposition -- college lacrosse goes about things a little different: The non-conference portion of the schedule can kind of go on forever, and for the majority of teams out there it's games against out-of-conference foes that comprises the amplitude of a program's slate for a season. Throw in the fact that these non-conference games often drive a significant portion of a team's NCAA Tournament profile -- RPI, RPI strength of schedule, RPI quality wins, other stupid RPI things -- and it's the out-of-conference games that play a significant factor in molding the construct of a season.
Not all non-conference games, however, are created equally. There are out-of-conference games that you drop everything -- including the newborn child that you're feeding in the crux of your arm -- and pay attention to because they're 10 kinds of crazypants beautiful. These games aren't weekly affairs; they're amazing little glimpses of the best that Division I has to offer, and they actually make you forget your preferred team for two hours while you drink in the glory of fascination. (The good kind of fascination; not the kind of fascination that finds you in the bushes with binoculars peeping at your neighbor through her kitchen window while she does dishes in that apron that you fancy.) The key is finding that handful of games so that you don't overindulge and ruin the specialness of the moment. Luckily, I'm here to help you find the aces in the deck.
Here are 10 games -- the five best get special treatment with five more (in no particular order) getting subordinated loan treatment -- that you need to keep an eye on this season with respect to non-conference affairs. They've been specially chosen through a complex system that integrates (1) an eye toward trying to see different teams, (2) national relevance in the matchup, (3) a unique story or aspect to the game, and (4) a focus on seeing really good teams play each other. (Just kidding. There's no system. I just went through the entire schedule and figured that these games kind of fit the bill. That's pseudo-science, and if it's good enough for daytime television political shows, it's good enough for me (right now).)
HE'S ON FIRE!
1. Maryland at Loyola: February 23, 2013
There isn't a bigger game in the early part of the year and there may not be a game this season that pits two teams ranked as high as the Greyhounds and the Terrapins when they meet. This has "One v. Two" written all over it, and the underlying storylines are going to be rehashed and reformed by various outlets until it makes you vomit: a rematch of the 2012 national championship; the dynamic nature of the long-stick midfielders squaring off -- Jesse Bernhardt versus Scott Ratliff; the Battle for Maryland (or whatever crap will appear on a t-shirt that you won't buy); new money versus old money; ad nauseam.
Outside of those things, the game will show the world a lot of important stuff: how Maryland's defense (without Kevin Warne serving as Geppetto) performs against what should be a dangerous Loyola offense; the strength and balance of Maryland's offense against a stout and fire-hardened Loyola defense; someone is going to be walking out of this thing with major pieces to an NCAA Tournament resume; how the Terrapins choose to pace themselves under the new rules against a hyper-elite opponent; and how the 'Hounds' offense operates without Dan Chemotti against a hyper-elite defense.
There just isn't a better out-of-conference game this season, and it's kind of amazing that it's happening before the calendar flips to March.
2. Maryland at Johns Hopkins: April 13, 2013
College lacrosse's best rivalry is renewed at Homewood Field this spring and, once again, carries with it ramifications that are greater than simple pride. Non-conference games occurring late in the year among the national elite are always good for two things: (1) Helping define seeding for the upcoming NCAA Tournament; and (2) Determining if momentum is real momentum that may carry a team to Championship Weekend. This game has both, and it squares tradition with contemporary concerns. Basically, it's totally radical.
3. Denver at Duke: February 9, 2013
I don't like running starts. I'm more of a guy that likes to see someone shoehorn themselves into a cannon and get shot through the sky into a net about 1,000 yards away with confetti streaming behind him. That's more my speed, which is why Denver and Duke playing each other in the second week of the season makes me want to stand up and clap and bask in the light of functional daredevilism: This has the potential to be a track meet and we'll have some early to answers to a host of questions that surround each club in the preseason. Do the Pioneers have enough in their attack to test a stout defense? Will Duke have figured out an offensive midfield rotation sufficient to withstand a Denver defense that has the potential to be very good? Where do these teams stand relative to each other, and what does that mean for our conceptualization of where the rest of the country is? At worst, we can see two of the best coaches in the country -- Bill Tierney and John Danowski -- show us how they're going to operate under the new rules and what that may mean for the rest of the season.
4. Colgate at Cornell : March 2, 2013
If you're going to put Peter Baum and Rob Pannell on the same field together and let them help sort out which of their teams is a true national title contender, I'm going to purchase a bunch of ice cream sandwiches and become really fat while sitting on the couch watching it all unfold. It's just not the Baum-Pannell nature of this game that gives it the juice to put it in the top five non-conference games of the year, though; it's all the ancillary items -- this is a huge Central New York showdown, which will create all kinds of atmosphere in Ithaca traditionally associated with big time Syracuse games in the Carrier Dome; the game will show the kind of defenses that both clubs have -- both are kind of being underrated right now -- and how they approach dealing with a superstar offensive opponent (and strong supporting casts); it'll be a strong test for Mike Murphy and Ben DeLuca in their strategies for the game; and the game comes early enough in the season where each club can go after each other with fresh legs without being a little worn from a heavy slate of games -- conference and otherwise -- that can cause physical and mental fatigue. I got kind of pumped just writing those words, you guys.
5. North Carolina at Notre Dame: March 2, 2013
I think there are games on the board that are more competitively intriguing, but there's something about 'Heels-Irish that piques my interest: The allure of seeing potential against potential. Notre Dame, while without concerns in net, lost a lot of pieces from the defensive end in Gerry Byrne's system; how will the Irish defend against a Carolina offense that is stocked with offensive weapons from the attack through the midfield? Carolina, for the last few years, has been a disappointment given the totality of talent dotting the roster, due in part to uneven defensive performances (especially in 2012); how will the 'Heels contend with a Notre Dame team that should trot an improved offense on the field while also dealing with an Irish program that has established itself as one of the five best programs in the country? Then there's the subtle issue of Carolina's desire to push the pace while the Irish like to keep things a little mellow. There's all kinds of interesting stories here for what could be a top 10 tilt, and I think that pushes it into the upper echelon of out-of-conference games in 2013.
Loyola at Duke: March 8, 2013
Very similar to the Maryland-Loyola game in terms of national relevance, but the interesting part of this game is this: The Devils get the 'Hounds just six days after playing the Terrapins.
Colgate at Maryland: May 5, 2013
All kinds of NCAA Tournament seeding is on the line with this one, but I'm especially interested in seeing the Raiders' offense try and dissect Maryland's defense again.
Virginia at Syracuse: March 1, 2013
I don't care where these two teams are competitively on a national basis; there's something inherently special in waiting patiently for Cavaliers-Orange, if only to hope for a recreation of the amazing February 1997 game between the two schools.
Lehigh at Denver: February 23, 2013
Can the Mountain Hawks repeat their charmed run from 2012? Even more importantly, how will Denver's offense attack Lehigh's incredible defense?