Quint Kessenich: ACC could have historic low qualify for NCAA Tournament

Notre Dame's Sergio Perkovic (16) looks to pass as several Duke players pursue in the first half of an NCAA college men's championship lacrosse game Monday, May 26, 2014, in Baltimore.

It's getting real now, with the stretch run to the NCAA Tournament about to hit full throttle.

It's time to separate the pretenders from the contenders and fact from opinion. We'll try to help you with both.


Fact: Just three weekends remain in the 2016 regular season. The NCAA tournament selection show is May 8 on ESPNU.

Opinion: We've never seen a season like this. It's had numerous upsets, parity, perennial powers struggling, overtime thrillers and sudden changes of fate. The weather is finally great. The stakes are high as teams battle for league championships and at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.


Fact: Notre Dame is No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to statistician Patrick McEwen of Inside Lacrosse. This stat bases performance on defensive stops made per possession and factors in strength of the opposing offense.

Opinion: My eyes and McEwen's stats are on the same page. Defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne continues to do stellar work teaching the subtleties of defense. The Irish's defensive-focused personnel of Matt Landis, Garrett Epple, Edwin Glazener, John Sexton Drew Schantz and Austin Gaiss have been a step ahead of the ACC and Maryland this spring. Notre Dame (9-1) does, however, have some major issues with its half-field offensive sets that must be ironed out if Notre Dame hopes to win the NCAA championship.

Fact: Johns Hopkins (6-4) owns the most efficient offense in Division I lacrosse, according to McEwen. Surprisingly, the Blue Jays have played without their projected two top midfielders heading into the season. They are at Penn State on Sunday night.

Opinion: Offensive coordinator Bob Benson doesn't get enough credit for implementing his scheme and maximizing individual talents. Hopkins has very few players who are scary as dodgers, yet they manage to create high percentage scoring opportunities. Shooting 33 percent and clicking at 53 percent with the extra man is evidence. Penn State offers a challenge on Sunday. The Nittany Lions play hard, with an intensity that few can match. They must neutralize passer Shack Stanwick and shooter Ryan Brown and defend the Hopkins pick-and-screen scheme.

Fact: Yale (10-0) travels to Brown (9-1) this week in a critical Ivy League game.

Opinion: This is round one of what should be a two-round fight. Perhaps even a third round looms in the NCAA tournament. It's the most-anticipated regular season game of the spring. The winner likely hosts the Ivy League tournament in May. Both teams are candidates for championship weekend.

Fact: Navy (8-2) faces Army (8-3) on Saturday in a rivalry game with postseason implications. Air Force is also a Top 20 team.

Opinion: Like this rivalry needs external implications. The Patriot League looks like a battle between the two academies, Bucknell and Loyola. It's really cool and rare for all three academies to be ranked in the Top 20 of a collegiate sport.


Fact: Duke visits Virginia on Sunday (ESPN2) in an ACC showdown.

Opinion: The Blue Devils (7-6) have lost two in a row and three of their last four games. The Cavaliers (6-6) are coming off a 16-8 loss at North Carolina. This game is about toughness and desire. Neither team would be in the NCAA tournament if it started today. Who is ready to fight? Who has checked out?

Fact: Brown's Dylan Molloy is averaging 6.8 points per game.

Opinion: If Brown makes a run to championship weekend, Molloy becomes the favorite to hoist the Tewaraaton Trophy in June. He and Denver's Connor Cannizzaro are now the clear-cut choices.

Fact: Princeton (3-7) fired coach Chris Bates and will hold a search for a new coach at the conclusion the season.

Opinion: The Tigers are no longer at the top of the heap in the Ivy League. Yale, Brown and Penn have passed them. A turnaround starts with hiring the right coach combined with increased administrative support. If I were leading the search I'd bring in Harvard assistant and former Cornell head coach Ben Deluca, Towson head coach Shawn Nadelen, Hobart's Greg Raymond, a former Princeton assistant, Tufts head coach Mike Daly, Denver assistant John Orson and Benson, the Johns Hopkins offensive coordinator, for interviews. Nadelen is the front-runner.


Fact: Michigan (3-7) faces archrival Ohio State (5-7) on Saturday in the Horseshoe before the Buckeyes' spring football game. Around 95,000 fans are expected for the football scrimmage. At the 11 a.m. faceoff there will be 15,000 and that will escalate to 35,000 in the fourth quarter of the lacrosse game. It's a spectacle. The Wolverines have never beaten Ohio State in lacrosse.

Opinion: This promotion of lacrosse is a fantastic idea and has been well orchestrated in Columbus for years. It's a shame schools like Penn State, North Carolina, Virginia, Rutgers, Michigan and Maryland don't utilize a similar plan. Michigan (3-7) lacrosse has found the Division I landscape to be tough terrain. Hail to the victors has no marquee wins. The Wolverines are 0-25 all-time against the Top 20 and (15-52) after five seasons. The sport would benefit greatly if Michigan was a Top 10 team.

Fact: There are more than 3,700 high schools playing varsity lacrosse nationwide. New York has 402 programs. Maryland has 226. Lacrosse is booming in California with 259 teams. Florida is growing rapidly with 201 squads.

Opinion: The 70 Division I college coaches have never had more talent to evaluate. Good players and athletes in non-traditional areas are slipping through the cracks and end up playing D-II or D-III. Late bloomers are finding a home in the MCLA, the club league that now has 213 teams including most of the Power Five schools like Oregon, BYU, Arizona State, Clemson and Florida State. Combine this explosion with early recruiting, where coaches offer scholarships to eighth, ninth and 10th graders, and you have a volatile recruiting climate. The winning intangibles aren't evident in a ninth-grade prospect — work ethic, leadership, being a great teammate, reaction to adversity and social skills are complete unknowns.

Fact: Rutgers (9-2) and Maryland (8-2) battle for first place in the Big Ten on Saturday. Rutgers has won four straight including a win over Hopkins.

Opinion: The Scarlet Knights have learned to finish games. They have shown terrific chemistry on attack with Scott Bieda, Adam Charalambides and Jules Heningburg, and are dangerous when running and scoring in transition. Maryland must get back on defense and substitute cleanly. The Terps must defend the first 10 seconds of each possession carefully. Rutgers' win over the Blue Jays was an eye-opener and has the attention and respect of Maryland. Terps won't let Rutgers run.


Fact: Towson is 10-1 and leading the Colonial Athletic Association. Laxpower's Larry Feldman crunched the math and gives the Tigers a 46 percent chance to win the CAA automatic qualifier but just 17 percent odds to earn an at-large bid. The Tigers have beaten one team (Loyola) with a winning record.

Opinion: I like this Towson team a lot. But the RPI formula that's used as playoff criteria isn't its friend.

Fact: Hampton (0-5) completed its first season as a Division I independent program.

Opinion: It's going to take time to build a winning program. Hampton's presence is invigorating to a sport that lacks diversity. Just 3 percent of Division I players are minorities. The Pirates can help change the face of the game.

Fact: North Carolina (7-4) tangles with Syracuse (6-4) in the Dome on Saturday (ESPNU). The Heels won NCAA titles in 1981, 1982, 1986 and 1991 and appeared in five consecutive Final Fours between 1989 and 1993, but haven't made a trip to championship weekend since. The Orange lost to Cornell on Tuesday night, their fourth setback in their last five games.

Opinion: UNC has all the momentum while Cuse is reeling.


Fact: After Tuesday night's loss by Syracuse to Cornell, the ACC is (28-14) out of conference.

Opinion: For years, the ACC has been the dominant conference and a five-bid league to the NCAA Tournament. This year will be different. Notre Dame is the strong favorite to win the automatic qualifier. North Carolina Duke, Syracuse and Virginia have work to do. There are only eight at-large teams selected to the Big Dance. If the tournament started today, only Notre Dame would be invited. That's historical in magnitude.

Fact: Just four goalies have a save percentages above 60 percent. Brown's Jack Kelly leads the country at 63 percent.

Opinion: The goalie's job has never been more difficult. Shots travel at nearly 100 mph. Scouting reports are detailed. Few teams waste shots or take bad shots like they used to. Specialized goalie instruction at all levels hasn't kept pace. Most teams don't have a goalie coach, or somebody on the staff that played the position.

Fact: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., will be the site of the 2017 and 2018 Division I semifinals and final. The 2008 Division I men's lacrosse title game at Gillette Stadium, home of the Patriots, set a record for highest championship game attendance at 48,970.

Opinion: Attendance has been downhill since. Why the infatuation with NFL stadiums where the upper deck seats can't see the small white ball? Exorbitant costs deter families and students. I prefer a model where MLS stadiums or medium-sized college venues like Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium would host. If NFL stadiums are a must, then the Meadowlands would be ideal, geographically convenient for the northeast and mid-Atlantic.


Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.