The Fairfield Situation

There aren't easy answers when it comes to the Stags this season.

Fairfield lacrosse -- off to an 8-2 start and currently ranked 13th and 15th in the coaches and media polls, respectively -- is starting to wrap itself in the conversation that dominated Wichita State's basketball concern this year. Two camps have started to form around the Stags' lacrosse efforts this season: (1) The first believes that Fairfield is overrated due to the fact that the Stags are perceived to have played a soft schedule and that the team's wins aren't all that valuable; and (2) 8-2 is 8-2, and the Stags should be ranked higher than Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Johns Hopkins.

Here's the truth about Fairfield in 2014: Both camps are kind of right and kind of wrong.

Fairfield Hasn't Played Anyone!

The facts here don't lie: The Stags haven't played an especially suffocating slate so far this year. The aggregate record of the teams that Fairfield has played -- 62-74 -- is telling, but when you dig into the nitty gritty of how the Stags' opponents have performed on the field, a clearer illustration of Fairfield's opponents at this stage of the season emerges:

FAIRFIELD'S 2014 STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE (THROUGH APRIL 2, 2014)
METRIC VALUE NATIONAL RANK NATIONAL AVERAGE BEST OPPONENT (ADJUSTED VALUE) SCORE
Strength of Schedule: Opposing Offenses Faced 29.56 47 30.93 Massachusetts (35.75, 13th) 11-5 (W)
Strength of Schedule: Opposing Defenses Faced 32.64 61 30.94 Yale (26.31, 13th) 12-11 (W)
Strength of Schedule: Efficiency Margin -3.08 55 -0.01 Yale (6.91, 13th) 12-11 (W)
Strength of Schedule: Pythagorean Win Expectation 47.22% 41 49.57% Yale (67.31%, 13th) 12-11 (W)

That's kind of ugly, but there are two important things to consider in that table:

  • Fairfield is 4-1 against teams expected -- at this juncture of the year -- to win at least 50 percent of their games. Those four wins -- against Yale, Massachusetts, Bellarmine, and Bucknell -- were by an average of four goals while the lone loss -- against Hofstra -- came by two goals. The Stags have done very well against their best opponents this year, and that can't be dismissed purely because Fairfield also beat four teams expected to win less than half of their contests in 2014.
  • There isn't a definite dependence between a team's schedule strength and a team's overall strength. A good team is a good team is a good team, regardless of the opposition (at least that's the theory). And Fairfield is a solid team: The Stags rank sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency (adjusted for strength of schedule), 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency (adjusted for strength of schedule), ninth in adjusted efficiency margin (adjusted for strength of schedule), are shooting the ball at a rate that ranks as the best in the nation, are out-working opponents on groundballs and doing a decent job at limiting turnovers, and are doing a solid job at maximizing offensive opportunities. The Stags are getting it done on the field, and if the team was playing an average schedule, Fairfield would still look like a team with top 10 potential and an appropriate ranking in early April.

8-2 is 8-2!

There is also half-truth inherent in this position. Fairfield has played extremely well so far this season, but there is some hubris in the team's performances:

FAIRFIELD'S 2014 OVERACHIEVEMENT
METRIC VALUE NATIONAL RANK NATIONAL AVERAGE
Pythagorean Win Expectation 71.21% 1 49.36%
Actual Winning Percentage 80.00% 6 49.61%
Overachieved/Underachieved +8.79% 19 0.25%

The Stags are currently about one win stronger than their expected record at this point of the season. That's not a big deviation from the team's actual winning percentage, but it is notable in this sense: Fairfield needed overtime to beat Yale this year, the Stags' best opponent at this stage of the season. How does the feeling around Fairfield change if the Stags lose to the Elis? A 7-3 Fairfield team maybe doesn't have the juice that an 8-2 Fairfield team does (one with a trajectory to finish the regular season around 12-3).

Records can be deceiving, which is why it's important to understand how the Stags have performed:

  • The Stags' offense is flying, but how does that change -- outside of an efficiency adjustment for strength of defenses faced -- if/when the Stags see stronger defensive units? Does Fairfield continue to shoot at a rate that borders on bonkers? Does Fairfield's turnover rate increase to a level that the team loses efficiency? Does Fairfield change the way that it approaches generating goals? Does it change the pressure that is put on the Stags' defense to perform? Predictory adjustments go only so far; there are characteristics to an increase in schedule strength that can be qualitatively and quantitatively captured, but the unknown still exists. (The inverse is true for Fairfield's defense.)
  • The Stags have been favored in every game they've played this season. What happens when Fairfield faces a team that has talent and performance factors that exceed the Stags' own factors in those two instances? Does Fairfield cower or do they throw hands and compete? The team hasn't been in many knife fights this season, none against teams that are significantly above Fairfield's head. There's a psychological aspect to the Stags' potential against strong opposition that may influence the team's efforts on the field.

So . . . .

Just sit tight with Fairfield; there aren't any easy answers when it comes to the Stags this season. There doesn't need to be a line drawn in the sand regarding Fairfield because there is -- necessarily -- grey that dominates the conversation. Keep an open mind and just enjoy what the Stags are doing.

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