Every year there is a lot written about the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Tournament selections. Since 1994 when the Bucknell Bison were undefeated and not selected for a post-season appearance a lot has changed but there are still difficult decisions made and teams left outside. It happened to Bucknell again this year in the 50th anniversary of the program. At least it was not as painful as the undefeated 1996 season which eventually led to the creation of the automatic qualifiers. Sid Jamieson, Bucknell’s coach at the time said:
I may understand things about this game more than others do. What has been done here is a real personal injury. It’s a dishonor to the game. They’ve disgraced it. That bothers me more than not being invited to the tournament.
Villanova, Bucknell, Ohio State, and Rutgers were all on the bubble for the final spot in this year’s tournament. According to John Hardt, former Director of Athletics & Recreation at Bucknell, Villanova got the nod for overall body of work and direct comparisons with the others. When asked by Ed Lee of the Baltimore Sun what separated Villanova, Hardt replied:
It was the overall body of work that Villanova presented and taken in the context of direct comparisons with each and all members of that group. So as we looked at the last teams under consideration, we noted Villanova had a really strong Quadrant 1 win over Yale. They presented us with the best nonconference strength of schedule. Of that group, they had the best RPI and the best win-loss record. And when the committee did kind of that next layer of drill-down, Villanova had one of the strongest RPIs both in wins and in the teams they lost to. So their overall body presented a profile that the committee ultimately felt was stronger than the other three final teams under consideration. And probably the last area we looked at was how the four matched up with common opponents that they all had played, and again, under that criteria, Villanova was the strongest program. When we look at the overall profile of Villanova against some very fine teams in Bucknell, Ohio State, and Rutgers, it was by a very slight margin that we ended up giving the nod to Villanova and then awarding them that final at-large spot in the tournament field.
There will be much talk about the perceived snubs and discussion about why Ohio State, Bucknell, or Rutgers should have been chosen over Villanova. The bottom line for the Bison is that they underperformed when it mattered. In a quarterfinal match-up against Boston University in the Patriot League tournament, the Herd fell 12-11 on their home field to a team they defeated in the regular season 16-9. While this loss alone may not have sealed their fate in the eyes of the committee it did them no favors. Two other near misses from the regular season also sting - a 9-8 setback to Richmond on February 17th and a 9-8 setback to Penn on March 20th. Had the Bison won these three games this year’s team is likely considered the best Bison squad ever. As it is the undefeated 1994 squad probably still wears that particular crown.
As for the announced bracket and the match-ups, there are certainly many questions. Dan Auburn summarized best:
As excited as I am to see so many riveting match-ups, I have some many gripes with the bracket at first glance. Personally, of all the teams in the running for the last team in, Rutgers should have made it in. I know quality losses don’t exist unless we label it ‘RPI,’ but this team beat eight-seed Syracuse, then lost twice to one-seed Maryland (once by a goal) and then lost a one-goal game to five-seed Johns Hopkins. Most times when I watched Rutgers, I saw an exciting team with the potential to make a run. That’s the definition of a wildcard and a team you want in the postseason. Of course, there are strong cases for Bucknell (great resume) and Ohio State (hot team) as well.
Then how is a 12-4 Ivy League champion Cornell team visiting an 8-6 Syracuse, especially when Cornell beat them by five goals in head-to-head competition?
How is Robert Morris in the play-in game? How is Hopkins the five-seed after winning the most competitive conference in lacrosse?
With a relatively small field of 17 teams, there is not a lot of wiggle room for the selection committee. There are 9 automatic qualifiers (thanks 1994 Bucknell Bison) and 8 at-large bids awarded. Once the field is set, the committee seeds the top 8 teams and then sets the bracket with geographic and competitive balance considerations. InsideLacrosse has a nice write-up on the criteria used by the committee:
- Eligibility and availability of student-athletes for NCAA championships.
- Won-lost record;
- Strength of schedule index, based on team’s 10 highest rated contests; (2 games against the same opponent will count as two contests).
- Results of the RPI.
- Record against ranked teams 1-5; 6-10; 11-15; 16-20; 21+.
- Average RPI wins (average RPI of all wins).
- Average RPI loss (average RPI of all losses).
- Head-to-head competition.
- Results versus common opponents.
- Significant wins and losses. (wins against teams ranked higher in the RPI and losses against teams ranked lower in the RPI).
- Locations of contest.
- Additionally, input is provided by the regional advisory committee for consideration by the Division I Men’s Lacrosse Committee. Coaches’ polls and/or any other outside polls or rankings are not used as a selection criterion by the committee for selection purposes.
The full process including timelines, criteria, and instructions as detailed by the NCAA selection document.
It is interesting to note that the actual selection process outlined in the official document states “No computer program that is based on pure numbers can take into account the subjective concepts (e.g., how well a team is playing down the stretch, what the loss or return or a top player means to a team or how emotional a specific conference game may be).” Except for LaxFilmRoom’s computer model.
The Inside Lacrosse article, ‘How and why an algorithm predicted the NCAA tournament bracket better than anyone’, by Patrick McEwen (@LaxFilmRoom), describes how his algorithm was able to correctly pick the 2018 tournament field. Using data going back to 2011 to train the machine learning model Patrick was able to predict the field with a high level of accuracy.
ELO Ratings for Lacrosse
Finally, I stumbled upon Lacrosse Reference, a website dedicated to lacrosse analytics. While only established for the 2017 season there are several interesting things on the site like the ELO ratings (detailed here) and the live win probabilities.