It is a problem that most nationally prominent Princeton teams face: weak, but mandatory Ivy League schedules. Impressive wins over the Columbias and Yales of the world don't add much to national rankings or tournament seeding.
The two-time defending national champion men's lacrosse team is no different. Aside from No. 4 Princeton (1-1), no other Ivy team currently stands in the top 15. And witness the first three games on its schedule: No. 6 Johns Hopkins, No. 3 Virginia and No. 8 North Carolina.
Having gone undefeated last year, the schedule worked. Strenuous early season matches led to a string of Ivy League cakewalks and a NCAA championship. But after losing to Virginia Saturday to drop the Tigers to .500, this week's game against the last current top-10 team they will face during the regular season – No. 8 North Carolina – has suddenly become the most important game of this regular season.
A loss tomorrow would almost certainly drop Princeton out of the top four for the rest of the season. The top-four ranked teams usually earn first-round byes in the NCAA tournament.
Something to prove
"We have to prove we're decent," senior attackman Chris Massey said. "It's going to weigh heavily, especially in terms of the rankings and our seed in the tournament."
While the Tigers have deemed tomorrow's contest a 'must win,' much remains at stake for the Tar Heels (2-2) as well. After a season opening loss to surprising then-No. 22 Butler, 13-12, North Carolina quickly rebounded to win its next two.
But Carolina fell to No. 7 Duke Wednesday and needs a win over a top program like Princeton to erase the doubts lingering after the Butler debacle and to establish the Tar Heels as a serious contender for the title.
If Princeton is to win, it must find a way to put its first loss in two years behind it.
"What you have to be fearful of after you lose is being too cautious, too lethargic in the beginning of your next game," head coach Bill Tierney said. "It's the hangover effect that you worry about."
Against a young Tar Heel team that is still searching for an identity, this is just the type of foothold that could set the Tigers up for a long afternoon.
"When you've got a team which can all score, can all pass, can all run, it's scary," Tierney said. "They've got a bunch of talented, athletic kids, who've got a lot of unknown qualities that we have to figure out as the game goes on."
Indeed the lack of an established 'goto' offensive player for UNC will force Princeton to prepare for all of the North Carolina weapons. Defensively, captain Ryan Kohart leads a North Carolina close defense unit that gave up 12 goals to Butler but held a potent Loyola offense to only six.
If the Tigers lose tomorrow, but run the rest of the table, they should make the playoffs. But for the two-time defending national champions, just making the playoffs isn't close to enough.
"A loss would be pretty horrible in terms of everything," Chris Massey said.