Monday, May 7, 2012

We're In

TigerBlog has seen it before, seniors who have given their all for four years and come up short of their ultimate goal, and now here they were in the lockerroom for the last time, in their uniform for the last time, unable to come to grips with it all.

And so there it was again yesterday, that same scene, stuffed into the team room at Class of 1952 Stadium, where Princeton had just fallen stunningly 15-7 to Yale in the Ivy League men's lacrosse tournament final.

Tyler Fiorito, who had been on the wrong end of the shooting gallery all afternoon, put on his bravest and most courageous face and spoke about how he hoped that everything that he and his fellow seniors had given to the program would carry over into the future.

To a man, the Tigers were crushed.

It had the feel of a team that had lost an NCAA tournament game, not an opportunity to clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It felt like a team that knew there was no way to keep playing, not a team with Top 10 RPI and an 11-4 record.

TigerBlog, for his part, was still optimistic. He hardly though the Tigers were a lock for an at-large bid, but he hardly thought it was a lost cause either.

Standing in the team room or under the media tent a few minutes later, TB couldn't remember a time he'd experienced something like this. It was over - or was it.

Then he sat down to write and came up with this:

"This wasn't Princeton's day. The question is, will this be Princeton's night?"

The team was so sure it wouldn't be that it didn't even gather collectively to watch the selections. And then the suspense ended quickly: Princeton was in the third matchup revealed, Sunday, at fifth-seeded Virginia.

TB can just imagine the reaction that the Princeton players had, especially the seniors, who didn't want the game yesterday to be their last.

Yale has won nine straight games, and the team was ultra-impressive in beating Cornell and Princeton here this weekend. The Bulldogs' reward was a trip to fourth-seeded Notre Dame in the first round - and the possibility that if they both win, a rematch with the Tigers in the quarterfinals.

Even with the loss, though, Princeton had a great season. There is no doubt in TB's mind that Princeton is one of the top teams in Division I and that Sunday was just a bad day.

Princeton has won 11 games, of which 10 have been by at least three goals and nine have been by at least five. At their best, the Tigers have been as good as any team offensively and defensively in Division I.

If anything, the surprise that Princeton received a bid is due more to the NCAA selection criteria than it is to the quality of the team.

According to Tony Seaman, the head of the selection committee, Princeton got the last at-large spot ahead of Penn State, who would have been next.

To compare, Penn State is 9-6 and Princeton is 11-4. Princeton ranks 12th in scoring offense in Division I; Penn State ranks 45th. Princeton ranks sixth in Division I in scoring defense; Penn State ranks 10th.

In common opponents, both teams played Hofstra and Villanova, both going 2-0. Princeton beat Villanova 14-8; Penn State beat Villanova 13-8. Princeton beat Hofstra 12-6; Penn State beat Hofstra 9-8 in two overtimes.

Princeton is its league champion. Penn State isn't. Princeton reached the final of its league tournament. Penn State didn't.

Princeton is ranked four spots ahead of Penn State by the media and two by the coaches.

They're close. Where it really gets blurred is the selection criteria, especially the one that values quality wins.

There are all kinds issues with this.

First, how is a team supposed to know which team is going to be a quality win going into the season? Again, if Princeton had dropped Hofstra and added Lehigh prior to this season, it would have been accused of softening its schedule.

Then there's the issue of how big a win over a team in the 1-5 range or 6-10 range is versus the 11-20 range, but what's the difference between beating the No. 10 team or the No. 11 team?

And of course timing. Yes, lacrosse has a small window, so it's hard to factor in when games are played. But Penn State's biggest gripe is that it has a Top 5 win and Princeton does not, yet its Top Five win was 4-3 in overtime over Notre Dame on Feb. 26. Somehow this indicates who is worthy to play into May?

In TB's estimation, there has to be more opportunity for the selection committee to simply say "Team A is better than Team B in our estimation." If Seaman had said that about Penn State over Princeton, TB wouldn't have liked it, but he would have respected it.

The criteria, though, is where it bogs down.

None of that matters anymore. Princeton is in, and in this most wide-open year, there's no rule against making a run.

The bid also gives even more credence to the Tigers' season. After going 4-8 a year ago, Princeton has won the Ivy League championship and now advances to the NCAA tournament.

It strengthens TB's contention that there is no question that Chris Bates is the Division I Coach of the Year, and it's not even close.

Lastly - and TB doesn't want to keep coming back to this, and he does so not to be exploitative but because it's a very real and very legitimate part of what has helped shape Princeton men's lacrosse in 2012  -  Princeton's NCAA tournament game will be Sunday, the first Mothers' Day since Ann Bates passed away.

It's the perfect place for Chris and Nick Bates to be that day, along with the rest of the Princeton Tigers, who belong in the NCAA tournament as much as anyone.


Anonymous said...

TB, one of your recurring big picture themes is that fans love to read pre-game feature stories, but nobody has an interest in post-game recounting of facts and statistics. I'm not sure if this was your intent, but recently your post-game recaps have read more and more like feature stories. And you're right; they are more enjoyable to read.

We are exceptionally fortunate to be in the NCAA field; I hope that we make the most of this unexpected gift, uh, blessing, er, invitation.

Anonymous said...

Good tweet from Cornell attackman/midfielder Matt Taylor after tournament field was announced:

Breaking News: NCAA thought Bill Tierney coaches at both Denver and Princeton. #Politics