Sheehan: Setting Stage for NCAA Tournament Positioning
by Sheehan Stanwick Burch | LaxMagazine.com
|Notre Dame is unbeaten at the end
of March, as it was last year, but the Irish can't afford to falter
down the stretch again.
© John Konstantaras
As the month of March closes out, we are at a crucial point in the season. It is hard to believe, but most teams only have a handful of games until their conference tournaments start at the end of April. Florida has only four more games on its regular season schedule before the American Lacrosse Conference (ALC) tournament starts the first week in May.
This is crunch time for the 100 programs in Division I women's lacrosse. Over the next four weeks, teams need to notch key wins to be in good position to secure one of the (now) 26 spots in the expanded 2013 NCAA bracket. With 13 at-large bids available, the race is going to be fiercely competitive.
Here is my take on who is trending up, down and in between at this point in the season:
The Terps remain unbeaten and no team has been able to expose a weakness. Top to bottom, they dominate and they're tough to beat even when you're playing your best.
Like Maryland, Florida boasts a perfect record. With so many weapons on a high-octane offense, the solid veteran defense often gets overlooked. Don't sleep on this team to take it all. The Gators have the complete package.
Notre Dame (8-0)
The Irish are the third unbeaten team in Division I, but they have not faced the toughest part of their schedule. In 2012, they were perfect in February and March, then went 4-2 against the Big East in April, suffering losses to Syracuse and Loyola. The conference year culminated with a loss to Loyola in the Big East tournament semifinals. That regular-season ending set them up for a matchup with Northwestern in the first round of the NCAAs. Notre Dame needs to be mindful to not repeat their late-season performance from last year.
Rutgers is off to its best start in program history. Last week, after beating Princeton 12-10 on Tuesday, the Scarlet Knights dropped a Big East contest against Notre Dame 9-6 on Friday. Rutgers has seven games left on the season, and they are all Big East matchups. The Big East tournament only takes the top four teams in the conference. The usual suspects are Syracuse, Georgetown, Loyola and Notre Dame. Rutgers has the talent this year to crack into this elite club, but it's not going to come easy for them. The Knights' could benefit from Loyola's struggles this year, but they can't make any missteps. Senior goalkeeper Lily Kalata anchors a Rutgers defense that is ranked first in scoring defense.
The Greyhounds are 4-5 on the season and have struggled offensively, despite a general preseason optimism surrounding their ability to rack up points. There is still time for this team to put all the pieces together, and they have opportunities to build confidence. The Greyhounds face in-state rival UMBC on Wednesday, which will be a good benchmark to see if Loyola has improved enough to make a push in the Big East.
Matchups to watch this week
North Carolina (9-1) at Duke (9-1), 7 p.m.
UNC's Kara Cannizzaro is leading the charge on the offensive end, while Lauren Maksym has been steady in the cage with a 5.99 goals against average. UNC has pulled off some close wins this season, and just narrowly escaped with a win over Cornell. After trailing 10-7, UNC scored the final four goals against the Big Red to avoid an upset. The Tar Heels also came from behind to take a one-goal lead in the final minutes against Virginia en route to another nail-biting victory. To me, this shows that the Tar Heels are beatable, but they have a toughness that enables them to find a way to win tightly contested games. Duke's only loss this season is to Maryland, 15-6, which is actually quite impressive, given that Maryland has steamrolled everyone this season. Freshman goalie Kelsey Duryea has been impressive and is coming off a 12 save performance in the win over Virginia. The edge goes to UNC, as I don't see Duke matching them goal for goal.
Syracuse (4-2) at Northwestern (7-1), 2 p.m.
This is the much-anticipated rematch of last year's national championship. For Syracuse, beating Northwestern at home is a tall task. The Orange cannot allow Alyssa Murray or Michelle Tumolo to be shut out of this game. Kerri Harrington, Northwestern's face-guarding specialist, limited Tumolo to one goal in the Wildcats' 8-6 championship game win. It won't be a surprise if Northwestern takes that defensive approach again, and it will take a team effort from Syracuse to get it's offensive stars free for quality scoring opportunities. Draw controls will be huge, as always. Alyssa Leonard for Northwestern can be a one-woman show on the draw circle, and she has 63 draws to her credit, which is good enough to make her tops in the nation and may be the reason that Northwestern comes away with a victory.
Princeton (4-3) at Cornell (6-2), 3 p.m.
This game is looking to be another tough Ivy League showdown. Cornell was unbeaten heading into last week, but the Big Red dropped their last two contests to UNC and Penn by one goal. Lindsay Toppe is having a great season, leading Cornell with 30 goals. Princeton is coming off a 12-7 upset win over Johns Hopkins. Princeton was relentless and put together a 6-0 second-half scoring run, limiting the Blue Jays to a mere six shots in the span. Only four teams make it to the Ivy League tournament, where an automatic bid is on the line. Last year Princeton was on the outside looking in. This is a critical game for both squads. I see Cornell rebounding and pulling out a win on its home field.
CBS Sports Network women's lacrosse analyst and 2001 Tewaaraton Award finalist Sheehan Stanwick Burch will be providing a column for LaxMagazine.com every Tuesday throughout the Division I women's college season. Follow Sheehan on Twitter @StanwickBurch.
CORRECTION: Because of an editing error, the Big East teams
which Notre Dame lost to in 2012 were incorrectly stated in an
earlier version of this story. LaxMagazine.com regrets the
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