Four Big Division I Questions
I see the Baltimore Ravens' stadium in the distance and airplanes dragging sky ads through a mostly sunny sky are buzzing overhead. It's championship weekend here in the Charm City, and many are wondering who will win the NCAA men's Division I title in a year where there's not a clear-cut favorite. I learned a long time ago it's much easier to ask questions than to have all the answers, so here goes in advance of Saturday's semifinal games.
Will Denver continue to surprise?
OK, Coach Tierney, you guys are Big Boys now. No getting around it. The Pioneers mantra this season has been along the lines of 'Don't just play with the big boys, be a big boy,' meaning don't just hang with the top programs, but be one. Since beating Duke, 12-9, at a neutral site on Long Island April 9, this team has thought about doing something special this season, but in the back-of-their minds the coach has said the success attained thus far has been unexpected in just year two of the Tierney Era. Denver hosted the first NCAA tournament game west of the Mississippi River, won that game to get the first tournament win in program history, and has now reached the final four with the win over Johns Hopkins in the quarterfinal. No doubt, Denver is the outlier in this year's final four that includes three ACC teams, but they have just a good a shot at winning the whole thing as any.
Can Virginia finish strong?
With an 8-5 record on April 22 after back-to-back losses to Duke, and losses in four of their previous five games, the Cavaliers' season could have continued its downward spiral. But instead Virginia enters Saturday's semifinal against Denver as the hottest of any of the final four participants. The Cavs have won three straight, over Penn, Bucknell and Cornell, the last of which showed that their defense may not be as porous as it was earlier in the season. Steele Stanwick has also played well since the twin brothers Rhamel and Shamel Bratton were disciplined and as he's become healthier (foot, calf). Stanwick scored six goals and had 14 assists in the last three games, good for 31 percent of his points this season.
Are Maryland's seniors meant to win this weekend?
Senior attackman Ryan Young is the emotional leader of this team, and one of 17 seniors would desperately like to end their careers with a win. The win against Syracuse in the quarterfinals was huge for the group, which lost in the quarters the previous three seasons under Dave Cottle. The team has also rallied around the passing of Ryan Young's mother, Maria, during the season after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Players, coaches and staff wear purple in honor of Maria and to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer research and programs, which Maria had become a proponent of. John Tillman believes this group is best when it has its backs against the wall. That's not really the case for them now, being one of only four teams still playing, so drawing on the motivational theme could be tough. But these Terps' have plenty of self-motivation.
What's Duke been up to?
Until now, the story of Duke this season is that there hasn't been a story. Gone are most connections to fifth-year seniors from last season and the 2006 rape scandal. This has been a nice, relatively under-the-radar season for the Blue Devils. The biggest story line has been John Danowski's coaching adjustments after Duke lost to Penn 7-3 way back on Feb. 26 in the third week of the regular season. Quietly, they've made it to championship weekend. Now they have a chance to repeat as champions.