PHILADELPHIA — Privately, a lot of fans are picking unseeded Cornell to win the NCAA Division I lacrosse championship here this weekend — but publicly, they urge caution because the 2013 regular season has been so unpredictable.
But there is no need for concern.
Going into the semifinals Saturday, the Big Red will win the title because of its work ethic and the way Cornell has blown out opponents in the first two rounds. The Big Red also has the top player in college lacrosse — attackman Rob Pannell — and another scoring machine — attackman Steve Mock.
That's clearly enough evidence for me.
"I'll be honest, I don't have a favorite," ESPN analyst Mark Dixon said. "Each team has positive strengths, but each has significant weaknesses. We've seen teams this year get on a roll, and then hit a few bumps in the road to cause setbacks. Expect the unexpected."
Princeton coach Chris Bates said: "It's one hell of a Final Four. No one is unstoppable. There is no breakaway train."
All aboard, welcome to the Cornell Express.
Pannell has been unstoppable this season, and he virtually clinched winning the Tewaaraton Award with two strong performances so far this postseason. He has 42 goals and 53 assists this season, and he makes everybody in the Cornell offense better because he is an excellent feeder — especially to Mock, who has 59 goals and nine assists.
Maryland couldn't stop Pannell in the opening round, and Ohio State just sat around and allowed Pannell to pick the Buckeyes apart in the quarterfinals last week. So, will No. 7 Duke (14-5), which plays Cornell (14-3) in the semifinal at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, have an answer?
The Blue Devils defensemen have put a lot of time in the penalty box this season, and goalie Kyle Turri has struggled, especially earlier in the year.
"Cornell will be playing a higher-level opponent this week against Duke," said Bayhawks coach Dave Cottle, the former Maryland head coach. "[Duke head coach] John Danowski won't be afraid to guard Parnell. He is not going to let him sit back and pick them apart. He'll at least make some moves."
Cottle also likes Duke's size advantage and athleticism in the midfield, but few teams can outwork the Big Red. Cornell isn't big, but the Big Red outworks opponents. The Big Red has a 637 to 491 advantage in groundballs this season, and that just gives Pannell and Mock more scoring opportunities.
In its two playoff games, Cornell outhustled both Maryland and Ohio State, and it held an advantage in just about every category needed to win.
"If they get up on you, they start feeling good about themselves physically," said Bates, whose Tigers beat Cornell, 14-13, in overtime on May 3. "They start pushing you around. What we did was push out on Pannell, and we didn't slide to Mock. We pushed him [Pannell] up front. He is good from there as well, but not as good as from behind."
No. 1 Syracuse (15-3), which plays No. 4 Denver (14-4), beat Cornell, 13-12, on April 10, but since then, the Big Red has won four of five. In the late 1980's and all through the 1990's you never picked against Syracuse because the Orange always had the sport's greatest athletes, but not anymore.
"This is not your daddy's Syracuse," Cottle said.
Dixon said: "The sport has changed. Because of the growth of the sport, there is more athleticism to be spread around. You could see the identity of Syracuse change around 2000 when they started playing more zone and mixing things up on defense. On offense, they always had the Powells or the Gaits, but now they have eight guys who can score. They are good in creating space and moving off ball. It's a different Syracuse."
Before the Orange gets to Cornell, it will have its own problems with Denver. Syracuse and Cornell are the most balanced of the final four teams, but Denver might have the most prolific offense with Eric Law, Wes Berg and Cameron Flint.
The Pioneers also have been successful in winning faceoffs, but that may not be enough to beat Syracuse, which has struggled in the area, but is still 9-1 against opposing teams when they don't finish with an advantage.
"Syracuse is tough to defend because they share the ball and are so well-balanced," Dixon said. "But faceoffs will become more important because Syracuse hasn't faced an offense as methodical and as fierce as Denver's. The Pioneers are as good as anybody."
Well, almost anybody.
It's a tough final four to call, but conventional wisdom supports the Big Red. Cornell is peaking right now, and the best should come out this weekend.