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2014 College Lacrosse Preview: Virginia's Possible Return to the Elite

There's a lot of heat around the Cavaliers this year, and for good reason.

Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

The resume that Virginia put together in 2013 doesn't look like that of a team that could crush some faces in 2014:

  • Record: 7-8 (0-3, ACC)
  • NCAA Tournament: Nope
  • Final Media Poll Ranking: Nope
  • Final Coaches Poll Ranking: Nope

That resume, though, doesn't tell the entire story of the 'Hoos in 2013. While the Cavaliers' season fell short of expectations, Virginia wasn't a typical sub-.500 team. In fact, a decent argument can be made that the Cavs were pretty good, even if the last iteration of Virginia lacrosse wasn't among the hyper-elite in Division I. When you dig into the team's profile from last year, illustrations of extreme agony emerge, the fight of a team that was capable of succeeding but ultimately fell victim to defeat in terrible ways.

The Cavaliers -- based on their performances at the offensive and defensive ends of the field -- should have won around 62 percent of their games last year, a mark that would have earned Virginia nine wins against six losses. That's a drastic difference in actual versus theoretical results. In fact, only one team -- Rutgers -- had a bigger negative differential in predicted wins versus actual victories. Nine wins would have likely locked the 'Hoos into the NCAA Tournament last season and ensured a place in each of the final polls of the year, especially considering that Virginia's inability to close three games -- all against strong competition -- likely created the gap between the team's expected and actual outcomes:

Syracuse 8-9 OT (L) Virginia was +10 in possession margin; only scored on about 20% of their offensive possessions; was uncharacteristically loose with the ball.
Cornell 11-12 (L) Virginia held a 10-8 lead with 8:53 left in regulation; yielded the winning goal with just 0:13 left in regulation; was uncharacteristically loose with the ball.
Ohio State 10-11 (L) Virginia charged late, knotting the score at 10 with 1:48 to play, but yielded the winning goal just 17 seconds later; lost by one-goal in a game described as a "Push" in a log5 analysis.

Getting sucked into the vortex of bad luck happens; programs aren't immune from its effects over the entirety of history. And there's plenty of reason to believe that is exactly what happened to the Cavs in 2013: Since 2010, Only five teams -- Cornell, Duke, Maryland, Syracuse, and Notre Dame -- have maintained a higher level of expectational winning compared to Virginia and only four teams -- Syracuse, Duke, Cornell, and Loyola -- hold higher actual winning percentages compared to the Cavs:

Average Pythagorean Win Expectation 71.06% 6th
Actual Winning Percentage 71.64% 5th
Average Number of Wins per Season 12 5th
It's not in Virginia's DNA to struggle. The last time that Virginia had a sub-.500 record? 2004 (the Cavaliers went 5-8). What did Virginia do in 2005? The team went 11-4, entered the NCAA Tournament as the four-seed, and made the national semifinals (the 'Hoos fell to the eventual national champions in overtime (a 9-8 loss to Johns Hopkins (the Jays went 16-0 in 2005))).

Betting against the Cavaliers is a major error. There's just too much history that the Cavaliers have composed in recent seasons to indicate that the program is jettisoned to the unknown for an indeterminate period of time. Programs of Virginia's ilk don't disappear; rather, they recuperate and annihilate. And none of that even considers the stockpile of dirty talent that Dom Starsia has accumulated in Charlottesville: A deep and talented field defense -- Greg Danseglio, Tanner Scales, Tanner Ottenbreit, Chris LaPierre, Scott McWilliams, Joe Lisicky, and Bobby Hill -- that is as potentially destructive as any in the nation, and an offense that will feature -- in some form -- James Pannell, Owen Van Arsdale, Mark Cockerton, Ryan Tucker, and Rob Emery lighting off explosions all over the field.

A 7-8 record isn't a 7-8 record, and Virginia shouldn't sneak up on anyone in 2014 given the true nature of the Cavaliers' abilities.