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2013 College Lacrosse Preview: On the Massachusetts Scheduling Talking Point

It's the criticism that refuses to die.


I like Mark Dixon. He's a bright guy, he does his homework, and he often does a really nice job at identifying issues and presenting them in a digestible manner. (For what it's worth, Quint is actually underrated at all three of those attributes as well. You fellas are too hard on the guy.) I generally seek out Dixon's opinion on things because he usually has a solid grasp on reality, what with being a former player, officiating the game, and serving as an analyst on just about every media platform that covers the game. Dixon is in tune to a lot of important stuff, but this tweet provides a nice jumping off point for something that I've written about a bunch over the last 12 months:

Here's what's going on in that tweet: Dixon is right -- Massachusetts' schedule has been relatively weak the last few seasons compared to others in Division I -- but the comment exists to further bolster a talking point from last season that was devoid of its proper context. Let me be clear on this: I agree with Dixon; what follows isn't an attack against him. Rather, it merely uses the tweet as a vehicle to create some context and spear what I consider to be erroneous positions regarding Massachusetts' scheduling in the past. Let's tackle the initial issue: Is Dixon right in asserting that Massachusetts has played a relatively weak schedule the last few years? Answer: Yes.

2012 15-1 26th 34th 23rd 27th
2011 10-5 40th 54th 24th 35th
2010 8-6 44th 23rd 53rd 31st
2009 9-6 18th 14th 19th 11th

Efficiency Ranking: Ranking based on average opponents efficiency margin.
O.O. Efficiency Ranking: Ranking based on average opponents offensive efficiency.
O.D. Efficiency Ranking: Ranking based on average opponents defensive efficiency.
LaxPower Ranking: For all years except 2009, weighted average of opponents computer rating based on computer margin of victory.

For 2012 -- where this talking point really finds its genesis given the fact that Massachusetts ran the table in the regular season -- Dixon's comment holds water: Massachusetts didn't play an impossible slate. My problem with the statement, though, is that everybody piles on Massachusetts for "playing nobody" last year. The Minutemen did play a decent schedule -- it wasn't against space aliens with rocket launchers or anything -- but it was solid, right around the top third in the country. Where's the outrage about the schedule that Loyola (ranked 27th in opponent efficiency margin), Princeton (32nd), and Lehigh (40th) played last year? Are these teams fraudulent because of the schedules they played? Princeton and Lehigh were, similar to Massachusetts, bounced out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Should they not have taken criticism for "playing nobody" and racking up records that were worthy of NCAA Tournament inclusion? And is Loyola's championship -- which was built on a schedule that didn't feature opponents sufficiently stronger than those that Massachusetts faced -- fraudulent in some form or fashion? There's a double-standard at work here, and the gestation of a talking point -- highlighted, I am to assume, only because the Minutemen ran the table in the regular season -- has started to spiral without context.

The other contextual issue with criticizing Massachusetts' schedule from last season is that it implies that Colgate's defeat of the Minutemen in the first round was proof that Massachusetts was actually a bag of farts masquerading as cologne. (Please note: I don't think Dixon is implying this. I do, however, think that a lot of fans made the leap that the Raiders' defeat of the Minutemen -- on the heels of a schedule that was good but not terrific -- was proof of Massachusetts' fraudulence.) That's unfair, and it's unfair on two levels: (1) It discredits the kind of team Colgate had last year, one of the best in the country despite a poor showing in the quarterfinals; and (2) It discredits Massachusetts' overall performance in 2012, a season in which the Minutemen finished first in the country in adjusted efficiency margin (a figure that accounts for strength of schedule). One game does not define a team or season, and using Massachusetts' strength of schedule as a straw man to prove fraudulence is nonsense.

Now, the second issue: Does Massachusetts putting North Carolina and Lehigh on the schedule make the Minutemen's schedule appreciably more difficult in the past? That's a tough question; if you want teams to play other teams that have names that you recognize and often see rated highly in the polls, absolutely. If you look at teams other ways -- namely, at their production and how they perform -- it's a mixed bag. Lehigh, building off performance metrics that were very strong in 2012, looks like a legitimate title contender. North Carolina -- while having the name, poll ranking, and potential due to the overall level of talent in Chapel Hill -- is a question mark; the 'Heels were consistently ranked higher than they should have been last season based on game-in and game-out performance, and if that defense continues to be a total mess, beating Carolina is no great shakes. The 'Heels have the potential to be good, but they could -- like last year -- end up in the production department in a similar position to Army or Ohio State (both were teams that Massachusetts dropped from their schedule to make room for Carolina and Lehigh).

(If you care, the rest of Massachusetts schedule looks eerily similar to the slate it played in 2012.)

Finally, and this is implied from the tweet and the conversations everyone had last May: Does a strong schedule matter? I'd argue that the answer is "It depends." For me, good teams are good teams are good teams; who a team plays only helps define the narrative as to whether a team is any good. There are obvious benefits for playing difficult competition (experience, etc.), but there are also negatives (fatigue, etc.). At the end of the day a good team is going to be a good team regardless of what the opponent fixtures say; good teams can't hide, and Massachusetts was a really good team last year.

The other thing that goes into this that I think needs some context: Massachusetts -- and teams in its position -- just can't snap its fingers and get any game it wants. Hyper-elite teams may not want to play a dangerous team like the Minutemen, which makes getting those games a difficult task. Throw in Inside Lacrosse and other event promoters corralling hyper-elite teams (which limits Massachusetts' ability to get those teams on their schedule even further), conference scheduling responsibilities, and traveling costs/budgets, and the situation becomes even more complicated in getting a big name or two on the docket. Most teams in Division I play a schedule like Massachusetts (in fact, I'd say the Minutemen actually have a better overall time at scheduling than some of its peers); Massachusetts shouldn't be hammered because of some circumstances that may or may not be out of its control.