"Everybody is slowly getting better and better," Downey McCarty was saying yesterday. "The tournament ought to be great."
McCarty, who was an All-America attackman at Johns Hopkins in the '60s, was only saying what every other close follower of lacrosse is thinking and anticipating.
The NCAA Division I men's tournament, with the Final Four to be played again at College Park on May 27 and 29, should be a wide-open, crowd-pleasing show.
In most years there are one or two teams that stand above the rest. This year, with less than a month remaining in the regular season, there are five teams with a legitimate chance to win it all -- and possibly more than that.
As Downey McCarty says, a lot of teams are slowly getting better and better, just in time for the playoffs.
At least one -- Syracuse -- is not doing it slowly.
The Orange, which lost two of its first four games, exploded here Tuesday and thrashed Loyola, 23-13, in a game a lot of people thought the sixth-ranked Greyhounds could win at home.
When it ended, fans at Loyola's Curley Field were revising their projected seedings for the NCAA tournament.
"Syracuse looked super," said former Poly and Dulaney coach Ken Carey. "The way they played against Loyola, I can't see anybody beating them."
L Of course, Johns Hopkins is ranked No. 1 and deserves to be.
The Blue Jays, who have four games left, are 8-0. They have beaten No. 2 Virginia (22-13), No. 3 Maryland (16-15), No. 4 Syracuse (14-13 in OT) and No. 5 Princeton (15-14).
"It hasn't been easy getting to this point," Hopkins coach Tony Seaman said in his office yesterday, "and I'm not sure the next four are going to be any easier.
"Navy [Saturday at Homewood] has to win to stay alive for the playoffs. Playing a night game at Hofstra is never easy. Towson State has talent and is coming alive. We close at home [May 6] against Loyola."
In the preseason, the coaches had Syracuse No. 1, Virginia No. 2, Hopkins No. 3, Princeton No. 4 with Loyola fifth.
Winning six straight games -- especially the smashing victory at Loyola -- has put Syracuse back in a class with the best.
"Syracuse is very, very good," says Bob Scott, the Hopkins athletic director, who was at the Loyola game Tuesday. "They have a lot of talent."
Terry Corcoran, first-year coach at Penn, has the unenviable task of sending his struggling, unranked team to the Carrier Dome Saturday.
"We scouted the Loyola game," Corcoran says, "and we've seen tapes of Syracuse games. They have no weaknesses anywhere.
"Their offense is always dangerous. They come at you from anywhere. And if they get you in transition, you're in trouble."
So there's no doubt in anyone's mind that Syracuse will be formidable in the playoffs.
But there's another team out there -- defending champion Princeton -- that Corcoran knows even more about. His team lost to Princeton, 19-2, two weeks ago.
Though Princeton is 7-2 and ranked No. 5 this week, the Tigers are in the category McCarty referred to -- slowly getting better and better under the coaching of Bill Tierney.
"Princeton," says Corcoran, "is so well coached. They're so intelligent. They're always in the right place when they need to be."
Princeton plays defense. Not many teams do these days.
When you see 36 goals in the Syracuse-Loyola game, and 31 in last week's Hopkins-Maryland game, you know the emphasis today is on offense.
It has become almost a cliche in sports to say defense wins championships, but Bill Tierney doesn't see anything trite about it.
When his Tigers beat Notre Dame here last month, I didn't think they looked at all like title contenders. The score was 6-4. You can't win with that kind of offense, I thought.
But -- ah! -- once again, even with All-America goalie Scott Bacigalupo graduated, Princeton was playing great defense. Even in last year's championship game, the Tigers were able to win while scoring less than 10 goals.
No. 2 Virginia is 10-1 and definitely is capable of winning the championship. But the Cavaliers and the rest of the ACC teams -- Maryland, North Carolina and Duke -- first have to survive their own conference tournament starting tomorrow evening in Chapel Hill.
The pressure there is on No. 7 Duke and No. 8 Carolina. They stand to help their NCAA tourney seedings by winning this weekend, but they could hurt them by losing.
The surprise team of the year is Maryland, which was 7-6 a year ago and was eliminated in the NCAA's first round.
By losing by one goal to Virginia at Charlottesville this year and losing by one in the last 12 seconds against Hopkins, Maryland has proven it can play with anybody.
"Maryland is for real," says Hopkins midfielder Milford Marchant. "They play very hard."
One thing about the upcoming Final Four that concerns a lot of people is Byrd Stadium. It is under construction -- only half of its stands were in use for the Hopkins game -- and people wonder how it's going to accommodate 25,000 persons or more on Memorial Day weekend. It had trouble handling a little over 12,000 last weekend.
"I guarantee you it'll be ready," Maryland assistant athletic director Gothard Lane said yesterday.
"The concourse will be paved all the way around. The whole expansion job [to 45,000 seats, complete with an upper deck] will be completed by the first football game. There'll be 35,000 seats available for lacrosse."
The NCAA's Silver Anniversary tournament should be a dandy.