Beginning Thursday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., an umpire will set a yellow rubber ball in the middle of two backward-facing lacrosse sticks, take a few steps back, and blow a whistle.
The opening draw of the quarterfinal round of the ACC Tournament will set off a 10-day carnival of power, skill, and tactics that will qualify 13 teams to the NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse tournament, and will also represent the last best chance for 13 others to make the field on an at-large basis.
Given the fact that there are still regular-season games being played this week, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the various non-winning conference tournament teams need to do in order to make the NCAA Tournament.
I do believe, however, that the world of women’s lacrosse is pretty much unchanged from a year ago. That is to say, the ACC will get the lion’s share of tournament berths, with the Colonial, America East, and Big East vying for being those last teams to get in.
I think, however, the tournament with the greatest intrigue is going be the Big Ten. Four Big Ten teams are in the top 26 in Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a formula which takes into account both opposing records and the opponents of their opponents. Depending on what happens in the next 10 days, half of them might be eliminated after the tournament finishes weekend after next.
Maryland, which holds the No. 1 ranking in the national polls, also holds down the No. 1 RPI rating as calculated last evening by LaxPower.com. They will make the tournament no matter what they do in the Big Ten Tournament.
Penn State, which plays Maryland later this week, holds down the No. 9 RPI rating. Ohio State holds down the No. 22 rating, which means that the Buckeyes are hoping that at least nine teams ranked higher than them win their conference tournaments.
The team to watch, however, is Northwestern, which is No. 14 in RPI ratings. The Wildcats are 7-8 on the season and have one regular-season game left, at Ohio State. It is an enormous game for Northwestern because of the NCAA regulation that a team have a .500 record is a requirement for making it as an at-large team. If Northwestern is able to beat Ohio State on Friday, the Wildcats need to only win one game in the Big Ten Tournament in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.
If Northwestern doesn’t win, then it would have to win two matches, including what could be a semifinal against a top-seeded Maryland side, which has 10-goalled the Wildcats the last two times they have met.
Stay tuned. This could be an incredible conference tournament season.