With all due respect to the other 10 teams comprising the 30th annual Division I men's lacrosse championship tournament, are the next three rounds of single-elimination action - starting with a first-round doubleheader today at Hobart - merely a prelude to the inevitable?
Is anyone capable of disrupting the collision course that Virginia and Syracuse appear destined to travel? Can anyone pull off an upset that would prevent the Cavaliers and Orangemen from squaring off in a rematch of last year's title game?
"There isn't a whole lot that separates No.3 [tournament seed] from No.8," said Dave Cottle, the coach of the fifth-seeded Loyola Greyhounds, who open their postseason at UMBC tomorrow against Notre Dame. "But Syracuse and Virginia are a head above everybody else."
Syracuse earned the top seed over No.2 Virginia, the defending national champions, by the slimmest of margins.
In the opener for both teams, the Orangemen traveled to Charlottesville and edged Virginia in overtime, 13-12. Since then, Virginia has won 12 in a row, the longest streak in the nation. Only a 13-12 upset at Cornell kept Syracuse from going undefeated.
Maryland coach Dick Edell, who guided the sixth-seeded Terps (10-4) to their ninth tournament appearance in the past 10 years, sympathizes with whoever faces Syracuse and Virginia in next week's quarterfinals.
"This isn't the year when you want to get to the Final Four by slipping through the one or two hole," Edell said. "We've tried the No.2 twice this season."
The Terps, who open their title chase tomorrow against Hofstra at UMBC, twice got outstanding efforts from goalie Pat McGinnis against Virginia. Still, they dropped four- and five-goal decisions to the Cavaliers, most recently an 11-7 loss in the ACC title game on April23.
Virginia might have a tad more offensive depth than Syracuse, although each team can blow people away at a moment's notice. Loyola employed a ball-control strategy to perfection for about 40 minutes at the Carrier Dome last month, only to be buried by Syracuse's 10-goal fourth quarter in a 16-9 loss. Two weeks earlier, Virginia blew out Johns Hopkins, 16-8, with eight unanswered goals in the final period.
Syracuse, led by All-America attackman Ryan Powell (35 goals, 43 assists) and Michael Springer (39, 16), scored 196 goals in 13 games. Virginia, featuring attackmen Drew McKnight (28, 24) and Conor Gill (24, 35), and an offense that got at least 20 points from six different players, scored 191 times in 13 games.
The Orangemen put an exclamation point on their regular season by torching Georgetown, 24-16. Syracuse dropped the Hoyas to an unseeded position, while solidifying their top seed.
"There were some questions raised [about Virginia] when we last saw them," Edell said. "With Syracuse, the only question is how many lights do you have on your scoreboard? And does the 30 work?"
Syracuse first must advance past the winner of today's Cornell-Georgetown game, one of the tournament's more intriguing matchups. The Hoyas, who played in the Final Four a year ago - losing to Syracuse - have had problems on defense and on faceoffs all year. And Georgetown's most impressive victory was a 14-10 decision over Navy, which did not make the 12-team field.
Cornell, under third-year coach Dave Pietramala, stumbled in late-season losses to Hobart and Princeton, but the Big Red has that win over Syracuse in its mind. Then again, the Orangemen were only three days removed from an emotional game against Loyola, and practiced only once before traveling to Cornell.
The Big Red is in the NCAAs for only the second time since 1989. The team will not be around longer than an extra week. The same goes for the first-round, Duke-Hobart winner, which must come to Baltimore to face a rested Virginia team at Homewood Field.
The best drama in the early rounds should be provided by the trio of local teams in the hunt. Maryland, which faces a Hofstra (11-4) team that has won 10 of its past 11, will need its trademark defense to cool off a Flying Dutchmen attack that has produced 52 goals in its past three victories.
With a victory, the Terps would travel to Rutgers to play Princeton in next week's quarterfinals, a matchup that suits Maryland. Each team dictates play with its defense, and the Tigers' offense - average at full strength - has been hurt by a season-ending knee injury to B.J. Prager, Princeton's leading scorer. The Terps are no strangers to the Final Four, having played in the championship game three times in five years.
Loyola should have little trouble with Notre Dame in tomorrow's first-round opener at UMBC. The Greyhounds outclassed the Irish, 12-2, two months ago, and their expected, quarterfinal rematch with Hopkins next week should be among the best.
But on the morning of May29, when the NCAA title game is played at Byrd Stadium, Syracuse and Virginia should be eyeball to eyeball once again.