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Predicting the ACC Men’s Lacrosse Tournament

Turning on the lacrosse computing machine, what does the ACC Tournament look like from a probability perspective?

Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images

The ACC’s transparent Sham RPI Bonanza opens on Friday at Virginia. The semifinals will square Syracuse against Virginia (on the Cavaliers’ home field) and Duke against Notre Dame for the right to play for a banner that carries with it no automatic invitation to a May adventure in the NCAA Tournament. There are, though, pretty significant stakes: Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Virginia are seeking to improve their relative position in the NCAA at-large pool, and with a solid showing in Charlottesville the likelihood of claiming a seat at The Big Barbeque becomes more clear. Emerging from a crowded field at Klockner Stadium is a powerful weapon when examining a team’s overall NCAA outlook, but the problem with trying to understand the favorites in this year’s ACC Tournament is fourfold:

  1. The tournament’s lowest seeded team is the tournament’s host, providing an advantage — let’s call home field advantage at about a goal per game in favor of the home team — that doesn’t generally accrue to a team in the bottom of the bracket. Complicating matters is that Virginia, the tournament’s four-seed, is within striking distance, from a relative competitiveness standpoint, of most of the teams that progressed to Charlottesville.
  2. The tournament’s top seed is plus-7 in ACC-only scoring margin despite expecting to go minus-three against the same schedule if replayed tomorrow. Carrying forward that replay-the-season-over-right-now idea: Syracuse would be expected to go about 2-2 against ACC competition rather than the ear-bleeding 4-0 mark it pulled together. As a soft top seed, the Orange are ripe for an early exit against the tournament’s host.
  3. The tournament’s second seeded team has, arguably, the least to lose in the ACC Tournament but is the strongest team in the field. The Blue Devils will be a favorite against every team it faces in the playoff, but probably doesn’t need victories to platform themselves as an NCAA Tournament participant.
  4. The tournament’s three-seed backed in the field, hasn’t scored at least 10 goals in their last five games, is minus-nine against ACC Tournament teams (expected to go minus-five), and is arguably the weakest team in the field (forced to face the strongest in the semifinals).

Seeding doesn’t really matter when considering how the ACC Tournament is going to shake out: Most of this bracket is a nightmare thanks to a predetermined hosting site, a short league regular season, and noise influencing how the bracket is organized. What probably matters most is whether teams are able to play to their capacity and survive this stupidity.

To try and gain an understanding around that idea, I looked at two ratings models: (1) A self-created simple ratings system; and (2) the Massey Ratings. (There are other strong ratings systems out there, including Patrick McEwen’s efficiency ratings, which provide deep insight into the relative strength of teams and performance-related considerations. I rested on my SRS system and the Massey Ratings because it was a quick and dirty way to run a simulation without having to do much work.) Using these two systems, I ran a simulation 10,000 times to determine the probability of (1) each team’s likelihood of advancing to the final; and (2) each team’s championship likelihood. Here are the results:


(1) Syracuse — Semifinal Probability: 41%; Title Probability: 13%

(2) Duke — Semifinal Probability: 78%; Title Probability: 55%

(3) Notre Dame — Semifinal Probability: 22%; Title Probability: 10%

(4) Virginia — Semifinal Probability: 59%; Title Probability: 23%

Duke, clearly, appears to be the favorite in this deal with Virginia — riding a home field advantage and a relative strength position ahead of its seeding rank — slotting in behind the Devils with 3:1 odds against. Syracuse and Notre Dame trail, the latter because it faces a nasty semifinal opponent (and is only a moderately dangerous team), the former because it would only be a favorite against the Irish in the final. Had Virginia not been selected as the tournament’s host, the Orange’s odds would change beneficially, but discussing alternate timelines is only for people that incessantly binge-watch weird Netflix shows.


(1) Syracuse — Semifinal Probability: 44%; Title Probability: 13%

(2) Duke — Semifinal Probability: 81%; Title Probability: 60%

(3) Notre Dame — Semifinal Probability: 19%; Title Probability: 8%

(4) Virginia — Semifinal Probability: 56%; Title Probability: 19%

It’s all about the same as the Simple Ratings System approach, which isn’t all that surprising as each model incorporates similar inputs. There’s some variance in the predicted margins between the two systems, but it isn’t material. The important takeaways from this: (1) Duke not winning the tournament would be a pretty significant surprise; (2) don’t blow up things if Virginia captures the crown; and (3) Syracuse and Notre Dame have difficult draws.



No doink. It was four games, genius. Look: This isn’t impossible for the Orange, but: (1) a true road game against an underrated Virginia team is light years from a guaranteed win; (2) Duke is real good, and Syracuse would only be expected to win about 20-25% of the time against this Devils team based on the models examined, even if the Orange toppled Duke earlier this season; (3) Syracuse has pulled some ridiculous stuff out of their rear this year — beating Duke on the road, surviving at Virginia, somehow dropping North Carolina in the slop under the Dome roof, etc. — and those are not concrete areas of absolute force.

Anything can happen, and with a young team that’s still sinking its anchors in key positions, the Orange’s odds aren’t tragically awful. But, from an expectations standpoint, understanding what this thing looks like should color the greater vision of how the ACC Tournament — and, by extension, at-large consideration for the NCAA Tournament — could unfold.