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NCAA Lacrosse Tournament Final Four: The Look of a Champion

Carolina entered the tournament as the team that looked most like the last four national champions. How do the remaining four teams in the field now compare to the last four titlists?

Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

There are thousands of different ways that teams go about their lacrosse business: hectic tempo versus a pragmatic pace; zone versus man defense; full-field ride versus hunkering back and forcing settled possessions; Canadian-influenced offense versus kind-of-Canadian-influenced offense (we'll all be calling helmets toques soon enough); ad infinitum. There is no magic methodology that brings with it buckets of wins; rather, how teams execute their philosophy often dictates whether exciting Gatorade baths happen instead of punishing wind sprints. It's this idea -- that execution and circumstances drive success -- that supports the notion that national champions, despite their differences in approach, have consistency in production in various facets of play.

It's still unclear what performance metrics are the most relevant areas to which national champions share space, but trends are starting to emerge. Before the NCAA Tournament started, North Carolina looked most like the last four national champions based on a truncated series of performance concerns. With the Tar Heels jettisoned to the cold recesses of space following their loss to Denver in the quarterfinals, the question that dominates this analysis has reemerged: Which of the four teams headed to Championship Weekend look most like those four teams -- 2009 Syracuse, 2010 Duke, 2011 Virginia, and 2012 Loyola -- that have recently turned a victory lap on Memorial Monday?

I went ahead and pulled together the profiles of the four remaining teams in the tournament -- Syracuse, Denver, Duke, and Cornell -- and created a comparison graphic. Ignoring statistical theory because I don't want your brain to explode, green means that current ranking positions are similar to that of prior champions; for metrics where wiggle room seems to exist, the cells are shaded yellow. Here's how everything shook out:


(Click to enlarge.)

Some brief notes:

  • You can make a decent argument that both Syracuse and Cornell look most like the last four titlists. My eyeballs and the melon lodged in my skull see the Big Red's profile as more illustrative of the champions that the NCAA has crowned the last four seasons, but that determination is built upon favoring some metrics over other metrics. Both teams could hold a profile that is national champion-worthy when the postseason finishes up, but there is little argument -- based on this comparison graphic and this comparison graphic alone -- that the Orange and Red are cut from the molds of those that have preceded them in the winner's circle.
  • Importantly, among this subset of NCAA Tournament participants, Syracuse has probably improved its profile the most since postseason play began. The Orange have moved into the top 10 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency (the defensive ranking has moved the most, from 15th to ninth), the team's adjusted efficiency margin has risen from seventh to third, and the team's Pythagorean win expectation ranking has moved into the top five. Syracuse has backed up in some metrics, but in the legacy metrics that often drive a team's success factors, the Orange are going in the right direction at the right time of the season. This movement is the reason that Syracuse is now in a somewhat similar position as Cornell.
  • The Big Red have also improved their profile since tournament play started. Cornell is now squarely in the top five in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency (increasing the team's adjusted efficiency margin by a goal), has seen its offensive shooting rate rise into the top 10, and have grown its Pythagorean win expectation by almost two percent. This was a Cornell team that entered the NCAA Tournament as the team slotted behind the Tar Heels as most indicative of a recent champion; the Red have built upon their profile in curbstompings of Maryland and Ohio State.
  • The profiles of Denver and Duke have stayed fairly constant since early May (although, Duke has backed up in some important areas). This is both a good thing and a bad thing -- neither team has lost what made them successful in the regular season, but neither team has substantially improved over the last few weeks. Of course, the Pioneers just knocked off the team that looked most like the game's previous four champions, and in a year in which leveraged competition exists throughout the top half of Division I, an outlier champion may earn top honors.