(Hi. I used to work here.)
There is no bell curve in college lacrosse: The apex of the season peaks at Championship Weekend, a three-game close to the year that, ideally, platforms the country’s best teams in an effort to capture a woodshop class trophy on Memorial Monday. The ascent is the same every year — the stakes, which pilot an out of control school bus filled with dynamite into a firecracker factory, never change — with the only difference being just how much things spike upwards before the eventual crash following the crowning of the titlist.
2018 Championship Weekend has the potential to stand in special territory, though: Unlike some years where there is a consensus favorite or tight tier of semifinalists with a true, repeatable potential to win the whole damn deal like a captain of industry smoking cigars lit with $100 bills, this season’s Final Four participants are both among the nation’s elite, having progressed through the bracket with only superficial scars thanks to the realization of their overall quality, and have legitimately square odds to survive the best that will travel to Not Boston. The leveraged strength of the remaining field is what gives this version of Championship Weekend an heightened sense of excitement: Anyone can win, and the remaining path to determine the champion will offer no quarter; there is only the pursuit of total victory and blood, and every team in the field has a chainsaw affixed to their shoulder where an arm used to be.
There is an epic pile of “No doink, loser!” in all of that: Of course Championship Weekend is going to feature a bunch of good teams and the idea that any team can win on any day is not exactly tearing a hole in the universe where robots from another dimension will spill forth and massacre us all on this planet. The thing with the 2018 Final Four, however, is that the quartet left to fight is impressively bunched together when simulating the likelihood of each team corralling the highest prize.
To illustrate that, simulations of Championship Weekend were run using a Simple Rating System and the Massey Ratings. Each simulation was run 20,000 times to determine progression and champions. The results are terrifying:
(For a larger image, click this text to make your computer do magic.)
No team has better than a 30% chance for a title and no team is looking like they have worse than 4:1 odds against. The semifinals — the greatest doubleheader of the year — features four teams in toss-up games, with predicted goal differentials on a neutral field, under both models, of less than a goal. Blending the two models, the least likely champion based on the simulations is well within maiming distance of the most likely titlist, and in an odd twist they’ll face each other in the semifinals. The other semifinal is tighter because of the relative strength between the two teams, and they’re championship odds have been moderately depressed because they’ve been thrust into each other’s orbit due to the construction of the bracket. This is, in a word, b*tsh*t.
Some additional thoughts on this acid trip:
- Regardless of your particular position on “styles make fights” and/or “matchups define outcomes,” you have to squint hard to see pregame goal differentials of greater than a tally. Maybe you see an extra bucket for Albany because of TD Ierlan, maybe you see Maryland being able to choke Duke and extend a little, maybe Yale’s 10-man hell pops some luck, maybe Duke’s depth gives you extra comfort on what should be a warm weekend in Eastern Massachusetts — in any instance, any expectations prior to noon on Saturday are likely to be exceedingly close.
- An important counterpoint to the above: Hydration is key; whichever team drinks a kiddie pool filled with Vitamin Water is going to own the weekend.
- The Big Barbeque isn’t designed to figure out which team is the best; May is used to determine a champion. Those two things can be different depending on the year, but this season, there’s a solid argument to be made that whichever team emerges with a victory lap at Gillette can claim both the trophy and the title of best.
- Looking back at the ladder probabilities when the rocket was on the launchpad, the three teams with the best blended win probabilities — Albany (19%), Yale (15%), and Duke (13%) — have made it through to Foxboro. Maryland, the reigning champion, is the interloper, but even the Terps had a 9% chance of getting past Robert Morris/Canisius and either Syracuse or Cornell (Maryland’s odds were deflated in the initial simulation as the Terrapins were facing a road that was ripe with difficulties as compared to other bracket constituents). Considering how close Maryland’s odds were to Loyola and Cornell — both ahead of the Terps in the initial simulations — the idea that the tournament held its chalk is emboldened beyond the simple fact that the top four seeds found a place in Championship Weekend.
- Against win probabilities, the blended models have gone 11-2 across the tournament. The misses were Notre Dame-Denver (the Pios won what was expected to be a toss-up game) and Cornell-Maryland (which was a bust — weird stuff happens). If you’re interested in the nitty gritty on expected margin performance: (1) it’s stronger than the regular season, even with the Maryland and Duke tattoos; and (2) results are landing within the expected deviations.
- Enjoy the show and please watch the games. It’s been a riot of a season; to not have lacrosse receive the attention it deserves from its own fans on the most important weekend of the year would be tragic. You have been given a beautiful gift.