A College Lacrosse Catch-Up for College Basketball Fans

Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

Your college rooting interests haven't ended for the year!

So, you think you're done following college sports now that the NCAA has determined its champions in college hoops? Wrong! Why waste your spring watching baseball and all the nothingness that it passes off as athletic achievement? College lacrosse -- a face-melting effort that will dominate your television over the course of the spring -- provides the perfect transition from hoops to summertime barbecue, an opportunity to wear your college colors and abuse your rivals with dense shade.

This piece will get you squared away on what you've missed so far in college lacrosse -- the season's three-quarters over! -- while monitoring nonsense on the hardwood.

WHO HAS BEEN CRUSHING SKULLS?
There are a lot of really strong teams this season -- you can make a decent argument that around a dozen teams (if operating in the right circumstances) could take a victory lap at M&T Bank Stadium on Memorial Day Weekend -- but five have established themselves as the strongest contenders for this season's crown. Three of these teams reside in the ACC while the Patriot League and Big East count a contender each:

  • Denver (9-2): The Pios are quietly lurking as a national title contender this season. Denver hasn't accumulated a high volume of quality wins -- the team's best wins are against Notre Dame (solid), Penn State (looking shaky), and Ohio State (looking better but not without mitigation) -- but the Pioneers are operating like a team with top five quality on the field. The team's offense remains the destruction machine that hammered its opposition in 2012 -- Denver currently ranks first in adjusted offensive efficiency, generating goals on over 40 percent of their offensive opportunities this season -- and has received increased support from a strong defensive unit that has fared well against a slate ranked 19th in opposing offenses faced.
  • Duke (10-2): After an overtime win against North Carolina (a 9-8 decision for Duke) in mid-March, the Blue Devils have absolutely assaulted their last four opponents, beating Furman by 15, dropping Syracuse by 14 (!!!!!!), throwing an undervalued Harvard team into the ditch (a 17-11 win), and stepping on the necks of Notre Dame (a 15-7 win). Duke avoided a slow start to their season -- the Blue Devils won their first four games of 2014, reversing an odd trend that has suffocated Duke in the past -- but are now playing as well as -- if not better than -- any team in the nation. The team's offense remains the firestorm of terror that has featured prominently in the Devils' history, but it's the team's defense -- currently ranked sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency -- that has morphed Duke into an absolute monster.
  • Loyola (10-1): One of two teams to defeat Duke this season, the Greyhounds have ascended to the top of the two major polls after starting 2014 toward the back of the pack. The heat on the 'Hounds is attributable to the balance the team exudes: The team's multi-dimensional offense provides a prism of doom for the opposition, a unit driven by Justin Ward's ability to create a dynamic display of goal-scoring ability; and the team's underrated-yet-exceptional defense -- led by Team USA member Joe Fletcher -- has limited both the looks opposing offenses get and the quality of shots put on cage. This iteration of Loyola lacrosse has the potential to duplicate the program's run to the 2012 national championship.
  • Maryland (9-1): The Terrapins started the year with seven consecutive wins until the Tar Heels knocked off the Terps in Byrd Stadium in late March (evincing memories of Carolina's win over an undefeated Maryland team in 2013). That start to the Terrapins' 2014 campaign, though, isn't the big story about Maryland this season. Rather, it's that Maryland -- ripe with young offensive talent and players assuming new roles and responsibility in the Terps' offense -- has somewhat seamlessly erased the concerns that dominated the team in the offseason, getting valuable production from freshman and other contributors that were initially thought to need time to develop. The Terrapins are legitimate title contenders this season, chasing the program's first NCAA championship since 1975. If Maryland can rely on its exceptional defense and get continued efforts from its growing offensive presence, a Memorial Monday appearance from the Terps is possible.
  • North Carolina (9-2): The Tar Heels -- currently ranked first nationally in Pythagorean win expectation -- are in the middle of the conversation for Championship Weekend participation. Carolina has a bunch of strong wins -- at Princeton, against Harvard, against Maryland, at Johns Hopkins, against Virginia -- and the team's two losses -- to Notre Dame and Duke -- were by a total of two goals. What separates this edition of Tar Heels lacrosse from others is the strength of North Carolina's defense this season: The team is currently ranked second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency while playing a schedule ranked 20th in opposing offenses faced. This isn't a firepower-only Heels team; there's much more depth to Carolina's efforts this year.

WHICH LEAGUES ARE THE BEST?
While you were busy arguing whether the SEC was any good at basketball despite putting two teams in the Final Four, the ACC was putting together the greatest accumulation of lacrosse power ever seen. The league is a beast, arguably the strongest league ever created in a college sport, and features six top 10 teams that have the potential to win the national championship on Memorial Monday. Outside of the ACC, the Ivy League has created momentum while the Big East -- almost a victim of conference realignment last season -- has held strong as a prospering and valuable concern. Here's how the nation's 10 conferences rank in terms of overall strength:

RANKING THE CONFERENCES (CONFERENCE STRENGTH)
LEAGUE AVERAGE PYTHAGOREAN WIN EXPECTATION RANK
ACC 75.29% 1
Ivy 57.76% 2
ECAC 52.62% 3
Big East 52.62% 4
THUNDERDOME! 51.50% 5
Patriot 49.41% 6
America East 48.05% 7
Northeast 39.64% 8
Metro Atlantic 35.53% 9
Atlantic Sun 27.98% 10

SAY WHAT?!
SHOCKING FACT: Teams generally improve or regress from year-to-year. Some teams rise from the depths, some teams fall from the top, and other teams move from one tier to the next (either in an upward or downward direction). This is what happens when players can't remain on the roster for the better part of a decade. What's interesting is how much teams improve or regress from season to season. Here's a table that details the top 10 and bottom 10 in ranking change in adjusted efficiency margin (that's a measure that determines the difference between the rate a team scores goals and the rate at which a team yields goals on a per-possession basis):

ADJUSTED EFFICIENCY MARGIN RANKING DIFFERENCES: 2013 TO 2014
TEAM RANKING CHANGE TEAM RANKING CHANGE
St. Joseph's +26 Lehigh -10
Fairfield +22 Siena -10
Rutgers +19 Marist -11
High Point +18 Mount St. Mary's -11
Bryant +17 Penn State -14
Navy +17 Bucknell -15
Harvard +13 Dartmouth -17
Albany +11 Holy Cross -22
Massachusetts +11 Brown -23
Binghamton/Quinnipiac +10 Stony Brook -28

WHO SHOULD BE DOING ARM CURLS IN ANTICIPATION OF HOISTING THE TEWAARATON AWARD?
Lyle Thompson of Albany -- short of something bonkers happening in the next eight weeks or so -- is the decided favorite to win this year's Tewaaraton Award. The junior attackman has scorched earth this year, generating 65 points through 10 games on 23 goals and 42 assists. He is concentrated lightning and the nation's hardest individual matchup, a force with no direct peer in Division I lacrosse. Other players are in the discussion for the Tewaaraton this season -- Miles Thompson (Albany), Jordan Wolf (Duke), Tom Schreiber (Princeton), Joe Fletcher (Loyola), Justin Ward (Loyola), Joey Sankey (North Carolina); etc. -- but Lyle remains out in front of the field, likely regardless of the kind of run that the Great Danes make in May.

HOW ARE THE NEW GUYS MAKING OUT?
Division I lacrosse features 67 teams this season, an increase of four schools from 2013. It's true! Those four new teams -- Boston University, Furman, Monmouth, and Richmond -- have pretty much done as expected relative to how new programs have performed in recent seasons, but one -- the Spiders -- are kind of outpacing expectations at the moment. Each team is still figuring out how to get on and off the bus, but their performances thus far in 2014 are generally in-line with what they should be doing. Here's how they stack up to each other and relative to how new programs have performed since 2011:

NEW PROGRAMS: HOW THEY STACK UP
METRIC BOSTON UNIVERSITY FURMAN MONMOUTH RICHMOND AVG. NEW PROGRAM
Adj. Offensive Efficiency 24.94 (60) 22.40 (63) 21.49 (64) 27.69 (50) 23.34
Adj. Defensive Efficiency 36.77 (61) 40.04 (65) 32.78 (45) 31.32 (34) 37.92
Adj. Efficiency Margin -11.83 (61) -17.64 (67) -11.29 (59) -3.63 (48) -14.58
Pythagorean Win Expectation 23.09% (61) 14.17% (65) 21.28% (62) 40.57% (48) 19.19%
Overachieved/Underachieved -13.99% (56) (-2 Wins) -14.17% (58) (-1 Win) -21.28% (65) (-2 Wins) -13.29% (55) (-1 Win) -10.39% (-2 Wins)

I WANT ANSWERS ABOUT [INSERT CONFERENCE HERE] AND I WANT THEM NOW!
Ten leagues are getting automatic invitations to the expanded 18-team NCAA Tournament field this year. Of those 10 leagues, there are all kinds of great races going on: The ACC is stacked with power and will only give four teams -- out of its six -- the opportunity to challenge for the conference's auto-bid; the Ivy League is a war zone and full of questions as to which program will emerge as its champion; the Metro Atlantic and Northeast aren't exceptional conferences, but there is a depth in contenders in both leagues; and THUNDERDOME! remains a brutal confederation of mayhem. With the exception of the ACC -- that league will determine its postseason bracket after this coming weekend (and Virginia has an impossibly long shot to make the field-proper) -- there are tons of games remaining in each conference to determine the construct of each individual league tournament.

Here's a brief look at the favorites and primary contenders in each league:

LACROSSE CONFERENCE RACES ON PLANET EARTH
CONFERENCE FAVORITE(S)* CONTENDER(S)^ CONFERENCE RANK
ACC North Carolina, Maryland, Duke Notre Dame, Virginia, Syracuse 1st
Atlantic Sun High Point Richmond, Jacksonville 10th
America East Albany None 7th
Big East Denver Villanova 4th
THUNDERDOME! Massachusetts, Hofstra Drexel, Towson 5th
ECAC Fairfield Ohio State, Air Force 3rd
Ivy Pennsylvania, Cornell Princeton, Harvard, Yale 2nd
Metro Atlantic Quinnipiac, Marist Detroit, Siena, Vermont, Canisius 9th
Northeast Bryant, Robert Morris St. Joseph's, Hobart 8th
Patriot Loyola Army, Lehigh 6th

*: Favorites are determined by taking the highest ranked league member relative to Pythagorean win expectation and including any team within five ranking positions from that team.
^: Contenders are determined by taking the lowest rated league member treated as a favorite and including any team with a Pythagorean win expectation value within 15 ranking positions of that team. There are probably more contenders in each league that aren't listed -- especially considering the role of tiebreakers -- but I needed to cut the cord somewhere.

Otherwise, you've shown up at exactly the right time to get your answers, college boy.

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