There are precious few things in life that truly makes us happy: When you perfectly separate the two sides of an Oreo. When you throw a crumpled up piece of paper into the garbage and whisper to yourself, pathetically, “Buckets.” When Aragorn tells the Hobbits at the end of The Lord of the Rings, “My friends, you bow to no one.”
But nothing is as consistently pleasurable to experience as lacrosse in The Chosen Conference, the Big Ten. And lucky for us, B1G conference play begins this week. That’s right folks. We made it.
For a long time, the ACC was lacrosse’s conference. To some, it still is the best conference in D1 lacrosse. But there’s a new kid in town. And he’s vaulted to the pinnacle of the sport faster than anyone thought. Who knew, that in just its third year of existence, the B1G would so thoroughly dominate?
Five, yes five of the conference’s six teams appear in the current top 10 RPI rankings. Three teams appear in the Inside Lacrosse media poll top 10, while four appear in the top 15 and all six—you read that right, all six teams in the B1G are ranked in the top 20 as of the start of conference play.
If you don’t trust RPI or the polls, maybe you’ll trust the real nerdy stuff. According to Analytics Lacrosse, four B1G teams are in the top 13. (While Penn State and Michigan are ranked #2 and #19 in the polls, respectively, the analytics have been far less friendly to them, mostly due to their weak schedules.)
Whatever methodology you prefer, it’s clear B1G lacrosse is STRONG. The conference is a combined 44-8. They’re 3-4 against the ACC, but three of those wins have come from Notre Dame. The B1G is 5-0 against the Patriot League and 7-1 against the Ivy League. Remember that when you’re advocating for one of those conferences to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament at the expense of a third or fourth B1G team.
In fact, each B1G team—even Michigan!—has already put together a playoff worthy resume. Here’s a quick rundown:
Penn State (9-0)
Media poll ranking: 2
Strength of schedule: 44
Notable wins: Villanova, Penn
Ohio State (9-1)
Media poll ranking: 5
Strength of schedule: 42
Notable wins: Denver, Towson, Marquette
Media poll ranking: 9
Strength of schedule: 12
Notable wins: Yale, North Carolina
Media poll ranking: 10
Strength of schedule: 50
Notable wins: Army, Princeton
Johns Hopkins (5-3)
Media poll ranking: 13
Strength of schedule: 2
Notable wins: Loyola, North Carolina, Virginia
Media poll ranking: 19
Strength of schedule: 69 (not nice)
Notable wins: Penn
Michigan’s resume is lacking, but there’s still time for the Wolverines to get themselves in the playoff conversation. The other five teams are squarely in the mix, and as things stand now, it would be a surprise if the B1G doesn’t get at least four teams into the NCAA tournament. My prediction is all four teams that make the conference playoffs will get in, and the 5th team may even be on the bubble. Can you say the same about the ACC this year?
Enough about polls and playoff predictions. Let’s get down to the juicy B1G matchups this week. We start off with a good one at Homewood under the lights:
Big Ten Sundays: Friday Edition
Rutgers @ Johns Hopkins
Friday, March 31, 7pm (ESPN3)
The date that Jays fans have circled on their calendars is finally here. Rutgers had Hopkins’ number last year, beating the Columbia Blue and Black twice—once in a massacre in New Brunswick and once in a close battle at Homewood in the B1G playoffs. The Blue Jays defense struggled mightily against Rutgers’ up-tempo style and relentless off-ball movement. Will this year be more of the same, or are the Jays ready for it having just come off an exciting 18-17 overtime win over the similarly styled Virginia Cavaliers?
Each team’s top goal scorers from last year’s playoff matchup won’t be playing this time around. Rutgers’ Adam Charalambides, who’s hurt this year, scored 5 times against the Jays. Ryan Brown, now tearing it up for the Charlotte Hounds in the MLL, notched 5 of his own in that game. So both offenses will have to look to some new faces for contributions.
For Rutgers, that’s most likely freshman Kieran Mullins, who’s quietly tallied 23 goals on the year. Assuming Hopkins top defenseman Nick Fields is matched up on Rutgers quarterback Jules Heningburg, then Mullins will probably see a lot of Jays freshman Jack Rapine, who forced the game-changing turnover in his team’s win over Virginia. That should be a fantastic matchup between one of the league’s best offensive freshmen and one of its most talented cover defensemen.
The Old Guard vs. The New
Michigan @ Maryland
Saturday, April 1, 2pm
It may be April Fool’s, but Michigan’s success is no trick. Yes, they’ve played an easy out of conference schedule. But the team’s win over Penn—and the way they’ve dominated lesser programs in other conferences—show that the Wolverines are for real. The defense, especially, has come along, coming in at #29 in Analytics Lacrosse’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. Goalie Tommy Heidt is saving shots at a 60% clip.
But Maryland will be their first true test. Are they contenders or pretenders this year? Can they hang with the reigning B1G champs and a perennial Final Four favorite? The Maize and Blue will need big games out of their top two weapons, Ian King and Brent Noseworthy. The faceoff battle between Michigan’s Mike McDonnell and Maryland’s Austin Henningsen will also be key.
After uncharacteristically dropping two games in a row (to Notre Dame and Villanova), Maryland got back on track with a thumping of the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill—the same site where Johns Hopkins thumped the defending national champions a few weeks earlier. This is likely to be the Terps’ easiest conference matchup, so they need a win here.
Big Ten Sundays: Actual Sunday Edition
Ohio State @ Penn State
Sunday, April 2, 7pm (Big Ten Network)
Folks. FOLKS. Big Ten Sundays are BACK.
The best tradition in college lacrosse continues, as the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions will wage war under the lights in Happy Valley. State vs. state. Offense vs. defense. Weird animal vs. weird animal.
Penn State is 9-0, but they haven’t really been tested yet this season. Sure, wins over Villanova and Penn show that they mean business, but how much business do they really mean? We’re about to find out. The Nittany Lions have the third ranked adjusted offense in D1 and can seemingly score at will. But they haven’t faced a defense as good as Ohio State’s—the team that held Denver to 7 goals two weeks ago and Towson to three the week before that.
The Nittany Lions defense, meanwhile, has been suspect at best, coming in at a scary 66th (out of 71) in adjusted efficiency. They’ve allowed double digit goals in 7 of 9 contests. That kind of efficiency, or lack thereof, won’t hold up against the better offenses in the B1G. But does Ohio State have the weapons to capitalize? After an incredible showing against Denver, the Buckeyes O was shutdown by Notre Dame. Still, with the #13 adjusted offensive efficiency ranking, Ohio State should be able to put up some points on a porous Penn State interior. Does PSU top defenseman Chris Sabia cover OSU senior attackman Eric Fannell, or has freshman sharpshooter Tre LeClaire earned the opposing team’s top cover guy?
The B1G Boys are about to throw down. Empty out your bug spray and strap on that safari hat, because it’s about to get wild.