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Friday, May 27, 2011

Is Denver Lacrosse's Butler or Boise State?

I spoke in the podcast not long ago about how "May Madness" isn't comparable to March Madness, but this year, in lacrosse something has happened that we often hope for in basketball: a "mid major" has broken into the Final Four.

True enough, mid majors aren't nearly as defined in college lacrosse. Sure we know who the haves are: The ACC. Hopkins. Syracuse. Princeton. Cornell. And in a pinch, it surprises no one if a school with big-time college football makes a run. But if not being among the elites isn't enough, Denver walks through the door with an additional handicap: they sit over 1,500 miles west of the traditional lacrosse establishment. With that in mind, Denver's really had to put in work to thrive in a sport with a true east coast bias.


Despite being a bit of a western Mecca for the sport with the likes of the MLL's Outlaws and the NLL's Mammoth, Denver was turned down in a recent bid to host quarterfinal action. The Pioneers instead went out and took a home game themselves, earning a 6 seed and hosting Villanova in an opening round matchup. Following that, the Pioneers came back east and earned a win that was their symbolic coming out party: Becoming the first team west of the Mississippi to earn their way into the Final Four - at the expense of Johns Hopkins, the bluest of lacrosse's bluebloods.

If Denver is to continue their "To be the man (WOO!) you gotta beat the man" campaign, they'll have to burn through two ACC schools on their way to a national championship: They will face four-time national champions UVA in the semifinals tomorrow, and a win there earns them an unenviable matchup with either Duke or UMCP for the championship. But does being one win away from playing in the national title game put them in the conversation with the likes of Butler basketball and Boise State football, programs known for busting through the glass ceiling? I'd argue that it doesn't, and the difference is coaching.

Boise State's Chris Petersen and Butler's Brad Stevens are up-and-coming (or, more accurately, up-and-come) coaches who made their bone bringing excellence to their respective universities. They have, at least to this point, been resistant to the lures of bigger programs, instead choosing to try and continue the excellence at their current stations. Bill Tierney, however, walked through the doors at Denver already a Hall of Famer with six championships under his belt. It is a different conversation in the manner that the coach made the program; Steven's and Petersen's rises were symbiotic with their respective programs; Tierney walked in with clout. This was not a co-building process, this was a made man laying hands on a new adventure. So while I'll give Denver credit for plenty, the story simply isn't the same when a legend joins your ranks.
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