Loyola Maryland and Notre Dame became the first two teams to lock up berths in the coming NCAA men's lacrosse tournament, and their entries have already begun to shape the 18-team field, which will be announced on Sunday at 9 p.m.
With 10 spots reserved for conference tournament winners, eight at-large bids remain. And teams are starting to get penciled into those berths.
The consensus is that five Atlantic Coast Conference teams beside the No. 3 Fighting Irish (8-5) have a solid ratings percentage index and strengths of schedule that warrant entry into the NCAA tournament. That includes No. 4 Syracuse (10-4), No. 5 and reigning national champion Duke (12-3), No. 7 Maryland (10-3), No. 8 Virginia (10-5) and No. 9 North Carolina (10-4).
No. 6 Johns Hopkins (10-3) is considered the sixth team to get an at-large bid. The Blue Jays' hopes for a home game at Homewood Field in the first round of the postseason grow if they can upset the top-ranked Greyhounds (14-1) at 12 p.m. Saturday at Ridley Athletic Complex.
That leaves two at-large berths in the field, and that's where uncertainty reigns supreme.
Much depends on what occurs in conference tournaments in the Ivy League, Colonial Athletic Association and Big East. If respective favorites Cornell (11-3), Hofstra (10-4) and Denver (12-2) do what is expected of them, ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said No. 10 Penn (9-3) and No. 14 Drexel (10-4) are in line to grab the last two spots.
"I think the Ivy is getting the [automatic qualifier] and an at-large," said Carcaterra, a former All-American midfielder at Syracuse. "I think Penn and Cornell are both in good shape regardless of what happens. … If Penn or Cornell wins the Ivy, then I think the second team will most likely come from the CAA. I think Hofstra or Drexel could get that last spot."
Carcaterra said the Ivy League could be represented by three teams if Harvard or Yale wins the tournament. Another wrench could occur if No. 2 Denver gets upset in the Big East.
"The second scenario with Denver not winning the Big East is the five ACCs, second Ivy, Johns Hopkins and Denver," he said.
Carcaterra said Notre Dame's run through the ACC tournament puts pressure on conference favorites to win their tournaments and earn their automatic qualifiers.
"I think it puts a lot of pressure on the CAA because the CAA could lose two teams in the field," he said. "It doesn't give them much wiggle room. I think in the Ivy, you'd want to take care of business. There's certainly more of a sense of urgency with that."
ESPN analyst Mark Dixon disagreed with his colleague, contending that either Cornell or Penn will advance to the NCAA tournament, not both.
"If Cornell wins against Penn and wins the Ivy League tournament, there's a slim chance for Penn," said Dixon, a former midfielder at Johns Hopkins. "If Cornell beats Penn and Harvard or Yale beats Cornell in the championship, I think Penn is done. Theoretically, they have a chance to be a two-bid league, but if Cornell wins that thing, I think Cornell is the only one that goes. If Harvard wins it, I think Harvard and Cornell will go."
Dixon said teams like Penn and Drexel are probably grateful that Loyola captured the Patriot League tournament.
"I think everybody breathed a sigh of relief with Loyola beating Colgate and Lehigh," he said. "All the at-larges said, 'Thank you, Loyola, for taking care of that because now we don't have to sit and look at your win over Duke and your numbers.' Now it's just Loyola."
The field will gain some clarity this weekend when many of the conference tournaments begin to unfold, and that is what makes the final weekend of the regular season so exciting, Dixon said.
"These races are so intriguing," he said. "… There are so many scenarios still to play out."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun