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2021 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Tournament: Biggest Stories

What are the biggest stories of this year’s NCAA Tournament? We analyze several in this preview

Matt Dewkett

After a long awaited absence due to the cancellation of the season in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship is finally back in our lives and because of the lack of a tournament a year ago, is perhaps the most cherished and anticipated NCAA Tournament in recent memory. This has truly been a season unlike any other, so if we’re lucky, it could potentially prove to be an NCAA Tournament unlike any that we’ve seen in the history of the tournament. Depending on the status of the Loyola Greyhounds for their game Sunday at Denver after the Greyhounds had to pull out of the Patriot League Championship Game on Sunday due to a positive COVID test in their Tier 1 personnel, that could absolutely prove to be true.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what are some of the biggest stories of this NCAA Tournament. Ranging from teams looking to make history, to breaking through, to how COVID could affect the results and outcomes of games; these are what we think will prove to be the biggest storylines and events to watch out for over the next few weeks as we head towards crowning a champion for this unprecedented year on Memorial Day

Can Maryland join 2006 Virginia and 2005 Johns Hopkins among the immortals?

  • There have been 13 undefeated and national championship winning teams in the history of the NCAA Tournament era
  • 1988 and 1990 Syracuse
  • 1979, 1984, and 2005 Johns Hopkins
  • 2006 Virginia
  • 1997 Princeton
  • 1981, 1982, and 1991 North Carolina
  • 1973 Maryland
  • 1976 and 1977 Cornell
  • Out of 48 national champions, that’s not an insignificant amount! However, you’ll notice that only 4 of those 13 were in the 1970s, and a further 4 were in the 1980s. Only 5 have occurred since 1990, only two this century, and there have been zero since 2006. The last undefeated national champion, the 2006 Virginia Cavaliers, were once coined by editor-in-chief emeritus of this blog, Hoya Suxa, as “the last great super team.” I myself have spoken about how we would never see another undefeated national champion. Well here we are. While this is certainly in unprecedented circumstances and in a unique, closed-circuit conference only regular season, the Terps are 12-0 which was a tremendous accomplishment. And if they win the NCAA Tournament, that is 16-0, something that hasn’t happened since 2006 for a reason, irregardless of a Big Ten schedule or not. It would be a historic achievement to do it in this era. If they do it, they are immortal. There are national champions and then there are undefeated national champions, especially those who do it when it was thought previously unlikely to occur again.
  • Can the Terps do it? They’ll certainly have a very tough road to do it. Vermont is a tough out in Round 1, they could potentially have to face Notre Dame on the road in Arlotta Stadium in the Quarterfinals, and then the top two seeds in the Final Four to do it. But if they can, it’ll be an achievement that puts them up there with some of the most famous teams in the sports history

Is this finally the year for Notre Dame

  • The Fighting Irish are in their 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament, the 2nd longest streak in the sport behind Maryland’s 18 straight. They had made at one a point a nation leading eight consecutive Quarterfinal appearances from 2010-2017. Their two national runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2014 are tied for the most of any team without a gold trophy, and their five Final Fours in 2001, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2015 rank as the 2nd most behind Navy for a team without a national championship. As you can tell, the Irish have done just about everything under Kevin Corrigan except for win a national championship. Some are calling this the Golden Domers best chance to finally win that elusive first title.
  • Is this the year? That’s the tougher question. The Irish quietly have no players on their roster who have appeared in a Final Four. Their last Final Four appearance was in 2015 and since then they’ve suffered some blowout Quarterfinal losses (2016, 2017), a unlikely-for-them First Round loss (2018), and a crushing OT defeat in the Quarterfinals (2019.) This though seems to be their best team since that 2015 group was the #1 overall seed and lost in OT in the National Semifinals to Denver. The Irish are 6th in the country in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and also boast a Top 5 defense. Throw in great faceoff play and they may be the most balanced team in the country. However their path to the gold trophy may be the toughest of any seed. A very tough Drexel team awaits in Round 1, then undefeated and similarly complete Maryland in the Quarterfinals, plus possibly the #2 and #1 overall seeds in the Final Four and Championship. If Notre Dame finally does it this year, you can’t say they wouldn’t have earned it

Does the COVID season lend itself to chalk or upsets?

  • Very quietly, the NCAA Tournament has become pretty chalk-ish in recent years. The highest seed to make a Final Four since 2018? A 5 seed once, Yale in 2019. 2018 had the Top 4 seeds all make the Final Four for the first time since 2005. Seeds are 13-3 in First Round matchups the last two years. And the lower seeded team is 22-8 in all tournament games. This followed a run of seven years out of eight from 2010-2017 where an unseeded team made the Final Four. Was it a blip or a sign of a longer trend? That’ll take a few more years to figure out
  • Our question though is: How does this COVID season lend itself to potential upsets? Conventional wisdom would say it could go either way. This has been a year where the top teams have felt more stratified to themselves than their counterparts in the rest of the Top 20 and nation than ever before, in large part due to an influx of transfers from the Ivy League which didn’t play this year and other leagues plus seniors from last year returning to school for 5th years. However this has also been a league with unpredictability in terms of who is available to play on a weekly basis and that’s seen games cancelled or postponed on a whim and teams take the field without significant contributors. That could make you wonder whether this be a carnage bracket. There’s now way to know, but that’ll be an interesting trend to follow.

Will there be a first round upset? What could it be?

  • Following off the above section, there hasn’t really been many big first round upsets in recent years. We had a slew of them in the early years of the 2010’s, to the point the #2 seed appeared to be rather cursed at one point with #2 seeds losing in the first round in 2010, 2014, and 2016. 2014 had 3 of the Top 4 seeds in the tournament lose in Round 1 and two of those in blowout fashion (#3 Loyola to the Thompson’s Albany, and #4 Penn in a rivalry game with Drexel.) Seeds were 44-18 in the First Round from 2010-2017, a 71% win percentage. The last two years it’s been 81%. Again, perhaps it was a blip and we’ll get back to having a banked on relatively big or at least not insignificant upset. If that’s the case, what could it be?
  • Among the games for seeds against one bid league AQ champions, the two that stand out the most to me are Virginia-Bryant and Notre Dame-Drexel. Both the Cavs and Irish will be favored and for good reason, they’re both strong squads. In the Cavs-Bulldogs matchup though; a Bryant offense that’s scored 70 goals in it’s last four games faces a Virginia team that has the 4th worst adjusted defensive efficiency in the field. Bryant also had a strong day on faceoffs against Saint Joseph’s Zach Cole, which could portend well for their ability to grapple with UVA’s Petey Lasalla, a possible First Team All American.
  • In the Irish-Dragons matchup, Drexel is simply a very good and balanced squad. They’re 11th in the country in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and 11th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency as well. They are slightly below 50% in Adjusted FO%, a Notre Dame strength which could be what tips the scales for the Irish. And Notre Dame is certainly very well rounded. But in terms of first round matchups, the Irish just drew a really strong Drexel team on a roll that’s won nine in a row. It’ll be a tough out even if ND is favored.

All stats courtesy of Lacrosse Reference