By Tim Hackett
Northwestern University revived its lacrosse program after ten dormant years in 2002. Two years later, the reincarnated Wildcats were back in the NCAA Tournament, and one year after that, they won their first of seven national championships over eight years. Northwestern has made the NCAA Tournament field every year since 2004. Just like the old quip about death and taxes, this is becoming an inevitability.
2019 marks the 16th consecutive NCAA Tournament with Northwestern in the field, and the Wildcats will begin their quest for national title number eight this coming Sunday in Evanston. Let’s take a closer look at Northwestern’s region of the bracket before we briefly zoom out and dissect the 28-team field as a whole.
Thanks to Northwestern’s script-flipping, program-defining, history-making, insert-your-own-acclamation-here win over Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament Championship on Sunday, the Wildcats earned the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the big dance for the first time ever. The Cats earned the four-seed in the tournament, their highest seed (that I could find) since 2013, when they were No. 2 and fresh off back-to-back NCAA championships.
And now, for the bracket itself. I’ll be honest with you, I think Northwestern got a tough draw here, even as the four-seed. Truth be told, there are hardly any “good draws” in what is a very tight field this year (besides maybe for Boston College, but more on that later). Plus, we saw what happened last year, when James Madison surprised everyone, myself very much included, and made a legendary run that culminated in the Dukes’ first-ever national title. JMU taught us that all the blue-blood programs will contend, but absolutely no one can be counted out or overlooked as this sport continues to grow nationwide.
But let’s get back to this year. Northwestern, as the top seven seeds in this ever-weirdly-constructed 28-team bracket do, earned a first-round bye; this surely still would’ve been the case even with a loss to Maryland Sunday. That victory, however, was likely what vaulted NU over Syracuse and into that fourth spot, which means the Wildcats earned the right to host through the quarterfinals. The semifinals and title game are played at Homewood Field in Baltimore, where the Cats just won the Big Ten Tournament.
Home field or no, Northwestern’s path to title number eight is a perilous one. Evanston will play host to the first round of the tournament on Friday as well, in a matchup between Stanford from the Pac-12, and Notre Dame of the ACC. I’ll continue to be honest with you: I’m surprised Stanford is in the field. I thought the Pac-12 was average at best this season, but the league still fielded three teams, as did the Ivy League. Stanford won the conference tourney last year, and, probably for that reason alone, was the preseason pick to win the league this year before the Cardinal ultimately finished third behind USC and Colorado. Stanford did place a league-high six players on the all-conference team, led by first-teamers Ally Baiocco and Julia Massaro. Baiocco is second in the conference with 50 goals and first with 78 points, a mark which is good for third-best in a single Stanford season; Massaro is a defender but leads the team with 101 draw controls, a school record. Stanford’s quality wins include a 15-12 victory over a Stony Brook team that shouldn’t have been ranked No. 10 when they played, and an overtime conference win against #22 Colorado.
On the other side is Notre Dame, a team Northwestern is very familiar with – the Wildcats beat the Irish in South Bend 15-11 this year, and they met in the NCAAs in both 2015 and 2016. Prior to Sunday, the win over Notre Dame was Northwestern’s best of the season. The Irish are a truly great team, and feature multiple defenders that can lead a transition, a four-year starting goalie, and three attacking players with at least 40 goals, including Tewaaraton nominee Andie Aldave, one of the best sophomores in the country. You know they’ve faced a tough schedule in the ACC, and the Irish scored quality wins over Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, but they were clearly hurt in the eyes of the committee by an entirely uninspiring non-conference slate and an ACC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Duke, which was left out of the NCAA Tournament entirely.
Notre Dame’s RPI (the Irish are 15th and Stanford is 24th in RPI) aside, I consider the Irish a far better team than Stanford, and I fully expect a Northwestern/Notre Dame rematch in the second round on Sunday. If the Cats hold serve, they might have to face Syracuse again in round three, assuming the Orange can get past the winner of Penn vs. Georgetown in round one. That could be a good match, and if Penn gets through, they could give Cuse a real challenge, just like they gave Northwestern. I’d expect Syracuse to win it, but it’s no sure thing.
That would set up another rematch between the Cats and the Orange, after Syracuse pulled out a 14-13 overtime victory at home early in the season in a game which Izzy Scane left early due to injury. I still think Syracuse is good and their fans have a gripe about Northwestern leapfrogging them into the four-seed, but none of their wins come close to the magnitude of Northwestern’s victory over Maryland. There would be plenty of narratives in this game, to be sure: perhaps Northwestern gets “revenge” for that earlier loss, or perhaps Syracuse gets “revenge” over the team that took the spot Syracuse thought for sure it had before this final weekend.
It seems probable that one of those two teams make it to the national semis. Who would await them? As always, it’s hard to bet against any of the favorites. Two-seed Boston College seems to me to have clear path to that final four – I like Colorado but I don’t think the fighting Miranda Stinsons stand a chance against that BC offensive depth. Princeton has two 50-goal scorers for the first time in program history, but the same issue looms – the Ivy League is usually known for its defense, but can Princeton hold BC to around, say, 15 goals and keep the Eagles in striking distance? I doubt it. BC might be playing angry as well after Carolina ended their chances at an unbeaten season for the second season in a row.
And speaking of Carolina, they’re still the three-seed despite that victory in Boston last weekend. I’d favor Florida to beat final site host Johns Hopkins to face the Heels; both Florida and UNC have great offenses, but UNC’s defense is far superior to Florida’s. On the other side, a Navy-Virginia battle would be fascinating. I think Navy has every chance to win that, even though they got pasted by Loyola in their conference title game this weekend. Virginia is in this weird spot as a real blue-blood program that’s gotten more than a little overlooked in its own conference the last few years, what with UNC, BC and ‘Cuse all atop the national rankings, but UVA is still dangerous and could beat UNC in the quarters if they get there.
That leaves us with the Maryland regional as the Terps are, ho hum, the number one overall seed for the seventh consecutive year. It’s insane how dominant they’ve been, but they finally looked vulnerable against Northwestern. Maybe, like we said with BC, that conference tourney loss will get them motivated in the national tourney, but they really didn’t get an easy second round game, did they? How about facing either a resurgent Stony Brook team on a hot streak or the reigning national champs for your first game? Incidentally, it’s a tough draw for James Madison, too, which could well lose the first game of its title defense. Maryland ought to beat either of those teams, but that seems like a tougher task than a one-seed might usually have. On the other side, USC/Denver will also be a great first round game, and the winner will seriously challenge Michigan in round two. I don’t think anyone will give tourney debutants Michigan much of a chance in this event and I wish I could say I’m in Hannah Nielsen’s corner, but after seeing Maryland just smack Michigan earlier this year, I would imagine the Terps would have the edge should they face off again.
In a year marked by parity, one thing is a certainty: this tournament should be a whole lot of fun. Might we see the Maryland/Boston College final people have been clamoring for, albeit with two one-loss teams rather than two undefeated teams? Might we see a former elite program like Virginia or Syracuse reach the pinnacle once again? Might we see a brand new champion in this ever-growing sport for the second year in a row? Or might we see Northwestern get back on top and win its eighth national championship? WNUR Sports will have the coverage of every single game of Northwestern’s tournament run, and we hope you’ll come along for the ride. It’s going to be a good one.