Monday, May 25, 2009

Lax Championship Index

The NCAA Lacrosse championship is later today, with Cornell taking on Syracuse. And you can never be totally sure about these things, but the odds are it's going to be great game.

Why? Because year in and year out, lacrosse puts on the Championship show of any sport, which we'll prove as we go along (
though at least one non-lacrosse player - Shaq - apparently, already knows).

But since writing about good lacrosse is easy (as we'll see), let's start with a little higher degree of difficulty and discuss, if we can, what bad lacrosse might look like.

The bottomline is, if either Syrcuse or Cornell beats the other by 5 or more goals in today's game, they will have largely locked up the title of Second-Ugliest Lax Championship of All Time. The current holder of that title - Second-Ugliest - is almost certainly Virginia's 2003 title, though UVA's 9-7 win over Johns Hopkins in the final is probably more correctly described as tepid for its low score than particularly awful. It was that year's semifinals that were just brutal: Hopkins beat traditional arch-rival Syrcuse 19-8 and Virginia destroyed Maryland 14-4 - two unwatchable games that combined for 21-points worth of blowouts. By at least a little, those semis were less fun than this year's, which were bloodless dismantling for Syracuse (17-7 over Duke) and Cornell (15-6 over UVA).

That makes the total semifinal point-spread of this year's games - 19 - the third-worst in tourney semis history, just 2 behind 2003's.

Hence, the chance for the Second-Worst title today.

Still, Cuse or Cornell would have to win today even more handily than they did in the semis (an outcome, one would think, made less likely by the ease of which both teams cruised) for 2009 to jump all the way past the just gawd-awful games that made up the 1977 tournament. In that spineless weekend, Hopkins and Cornell both scored 22 in the semifinals, the Big Red winning by 10 over Maryland while Hopkins thrashed Navy 22-6.

How ugly was that? In the 37 lacrosse final fours played other than 1977's, encompassing 111 games, none have come close to the 16-pt drubbing Hopkins put on Navy, and only 13 of those 111 games have been as one-sided as the 10-point Cornell-Maryland game.

In other words: one of the 1977 semifinals was the worst game - by far - in Final Four history, and the other was in the worst 10%.

The 1977 final was almost as dull: 16-8 for Cornell. In fact, I know of only one reason to not expunge the 1977 tourney from the record books - the tourney's MVP was Cornell's Eamon McEneaney, a three-time first-team All-American, widely viewed as the best athlete in Cornell history, and a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. For Eamon, it stays on the books, and also, perhaps, so that Cuse and Cornell - barring an 11-point blowout final - won't go home as all-time ugliest champs.

Why all this talk about "Bad" lacrosse final fours? Two reasons.

One, the NCAA final four is the woodstock, class trip and county boat show of lacrosse, all rolled into one. People who play and follow lacrosse do so with a fury, and the annual final four is the reunion they start planning for on the ride home from the last one. So I'm not really trying to decide which final four was the "worst" (though its clear: it was 1977), as I am trying to make a backdoor illustration that the winner today - or any year - is only part of the story of the lax final four. Really, each year's full three-game event - always on memorial weekend - is its own entity, and the names and face of the semis - usually familiar, sometimes fresh - define it as much as the eventual champ.

And two: I wanted to see if I could do it. Because it turns out that talking bad lacrosee is, really hard, because lacrosse championships are, on average, WAY better than anybody elses.

How good? Let's have a look:

38: NCAA D-1 lacrosse National Championship games played prior to today
17: Decided by 1 goal

20: Decided by 1 or 2 goals
23: Decided by 3 or less (3 is the lacrosse tipping point; a 3 goal lead can evaporate in 5 quick passes; 4 goal leads feel and wear much sturdier)
3: Championship Games decided by more than 8 (a lacrosse blowout)

Put another way, over 60 percent of championships have been competitive to the final minute, while less than 8 percent have been blowouts.

For Comparison, "The" Final Four

3: NCAA Basketball title games decided by 1 point.
10: NCAA Basketball title games decided by 4 or fewer points.
10: Title games with a winning margin of 12 or more.
13: Title games with a winning margin > 10.

So, in simple language, if you watch an NCAA Final in basketball, you are as likely to see a one-sided game won by 12 points or more as to see a decision by 4-points-or-less. And you are considerably more likely to see a double digit final margin (a total of 13 title games have been decided by 10 or more).


2: Overtimes in the NCAA basketball title game since 1971.
8: Overtimes in lacrosse title game.

Of course, what the lax title game brings in competitiveness, it pays for with a stunning and inarguable lack of diversity.

7: NCAA title game winners - Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, UVA, UNC, Cornell, Maryland.

Two stats to illustrate how insulated that is
Since the first NCAA lacrosse championship in 1971...
11: NCAA men's volleyball winners (7 just from California)
8: ACC men's basketball champs.

So that looks bad. But really, its worse than that:

1975: Maryland's most recent title
1977: Cornell's most recent title
1991: UNC's most recent title
1992: Princeton's first title, the last time the winner's circle saw new blood. Put another way, Princeton replaced UNC in a four-team rotation with Cuse, Hopkins and (less often) UVA that has sequested the title in thier ranks for 32 years.

But really, its worse even than that:

31: NCAA title games LOST by the Big Seven schools.
9.2: Percent of NCAA title game slots ever filled by a team outside the Big Seven.
Non-Winners Club title appearances:
2: Duke, Navy
1: UMass, Towson, Loyola

And really, its actually just a bit worse than that:

20: Total teams to ever reach the Lacrosse Final Four
18: Total teams to reach the Final Four since 1975 and who remain competitive today.
Outside of the 12 finalists, Yale, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Penn, Army and Brown have reached the semi. (Washington & Lee and Cortland St (a Baltimore-area school) were in each of the first four Final Fours, but neither today plays at an elite level).

Still, to even mention Penn's only Final Four trip is to invoke one of the sports - most seminal games, the Quakers 11-10 loss to the mighty 1988 Syracuse team. Widely viewed as the greatest team of all time - certainly to that point - the 1988 Syracuse team that Penn faced featured Gary Gait in the midst of what would end up being an NCAA record 70 goal-season, while his twin brother Paul had 47. In all Syracuse outscored its 1988 opponents 261-118 on the way to a 15-0 record.
All of which would make Penn's 11-10 loss in the semis - in Syracuse's hometown Carrier Dome, no less - one of the sports great Desperate Stands.
But with the tie scored 10-10 with 15 seconds left, Gary Gait stood on the left wing of Penn's defense and looked at the clock. Realizing the time left in the game, he sprinted toward the rear of the net, Penn's defender matching him step for step.
None of which was particularly remarkable.
However, as he reached the back of the net, he did something no one had ever done.
From outside the crease circle, he jumped towards net, throwing his stick forward in the air over the goal's crossbar, dunking the ball into the net before crashing into the goal.

(first 20 seconds of video, best I could find)

From behind the goal, he had slam dunked the game winner, a shot instantly legionized as the Air Gait.

Summing it up then, the boundries of the known lacrosse universe look like this:
7: title winners
5: finals losers
6: additional final four qualifiers since 1975.
18: Total currently-competitive Final Four teams.

Those teams break down into five catagories.
5: Ivy League teams
4: ACC teams (only those four conference schools field teams)
4: Baltimore teams (Hopkins, Towson, Loyola, Navy)
2: Upstate NY teams (Army, Syracuse)
3: Georgetown, Notre Dame, UMass

It's not exactly the UN of Sport, but hey, neither is water polo.

Are there signs of loosening? Perhaps. Cornell's appearance today marks the fifth time in the last four years that a non-Big Four school has played for the title, after UMass and Duke (twice) crashed the party from 05 to 07.

So some final stats, including Cuse and Cornell's appearance today, but before the game is played:
9, 19: Titles and Finals appearances, Johns Hopkins
10, 16: Titles and Finals (pending today), Syracuse.

THough Syracuse, with its glamorous history of Jim Brown and the Gait brothers, has the most titles, Hopkins can still claim that the road to the title goes through them. And let's never forget that it was Hopkins who turned back Duke in both 05 and 07 by a single goal in the final, keeping the sordid affairs of that program on Duke's campus out of the sport's top tier.

6,8: Princeton
4,8: UVA
4,5: UNC (best winning pct of the bunch, hope to say)
2,9: Maryland. ouch.

So in all, i'll be pulling for Cornell to break the 4-way lock at least back into 5 pieces, and to keep Cuse within a single game of Hopkins at the top of the leader board.

Have a good memorial day.

UPDATE: 'Cuse won. By 1. In overtime. Told ya so.

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