Maryland, Army are among the season's biggest surprises

Six weeks into the college lacrosse season, we've learned a lot about the teams vying for a chance to play on championship weekend. But as the weather heats up, so do the conference races -- where we separate the true contenders from the pretenders. This time of year is when good coaches earn their money; games are won or lost because of a team's preparation, game plan and scouting. April is when all of their hard work comes together. At the midway point of the season, here's a look at where we stand:

Which team is No. 1?

Syracuse took over the top spot this week, supplanting Virginia, which held on to No. 1 for just one week before losing to Maryland. The Orange are 8-1, with wins against Army, Georgetown, at Johns Hopkins and Loyola and the loss coming in overtime at the hands of the Cavaliers. While those wins came against talented teams -- one top-10 and three top-20 -- Syracuse doesn't play as tough a schedule as those teams in the ACC.

Right now, Duke is hands down the most talented team in the country. The stumbling blocks for the Blue Devils? Team chemistry and hubris. Trying to integrate the fifth-year seniors into the team -- while allowing the younger players to grow and take on leadership roles -- is a tough task for John Danowski. Duke's lone loss -- to Georgetown -- was the result of complacent defense. Because Duke's attack is so prolific, the Blue Devils don't sweat giving up a few goals. Against the Hoyas, the attack met a hot goalie in Miles Kass, and wasn't able to carry the team. What you do after a loss defines you as a team. Teams that move forward will be the ones you'll see on Memorial Day weekend in Foxborough, Mass.

Duke lost in the finals last season, but was emotionally drained from off-field events before it got to the championship game. That won't happen this season.

What have been the biggest surprises so far?

Maryland has to be one of the biggest surprises of the season. The Baby Terps are 7-2 despite experiencing a lot of turnover on defense, starting four freshmen on attack and playing one of the nation's toughest schedules. Maryland already has wins over Georgetown, North Carolina and Virginia. Maryland's two losses? Duke and UMBC -- the latter a game the Terps should have won. It's a much better start than anyone could have expected.

Army has also started the season at 7-2 -- and its two losses were by a goal apiece. This is the same team that finished the 2007 season on an eight-game losing streak. The Knights play a tough schedule that includes Duke and archrival Navy, a team they haven't beaten in the past 13 tries. Senior goalie Adam Fullerton leads a talented roster, and coach Joe Alberici's team is winning games by winning all of the major statistical categories.

Drexel turned the corner last year and has continued to move forward this season. The Dragons are making incremental improvements and are a tough opponent. Cornell, which sustained heavy graduation losses, has started the season at 7-1 (the lone loss was to UNC early in the season). If coach Jeff Tambroni can have another one- or two-loss season, he'll reserve a spot in the Hall of Fame.

What have been the biggest disappointments so far?

Possibly the most shocking record this season is Johns Hopkins' 3-4 mark. The defending champions had a top-10 defense last year and returned all but two starters. The Blue Jays rank among the worst defenses this season and the team is mired in a four-game losing streak with Duke up next on the schedule.

Albany's 2-5 record is a surprise thus far. The Great Danes have great upside, and I expect them to turn it around and contend for the America East automatic qualifier into the NCAA tournament. UMBC is having a good year, but Albany remains the class of the conference.

Who are the players to watch?

Duke's Matt Danowski, the reigning Tewaaraton Trophy winner (lacrosse's version of the Heisman), has to be considered the favorite at this point in the season. He'll have some competition from Syracuse's Mike Leveille, especially if the Orange continue to cruise, and from teammate Zack Greer. Should the race tighten up, Danowski will probably be on the outside looking in, because the committee will take into account his status as a fifth-year senior.

Other players to watch: Duke's Nick O'Hara, Maryland's Brian Farrell, Syracuse's Matt Abbott and Loyola's P.T. Ricci.

Who are the top rookies?

Virginia's freshman twins, Rhamel and Shamel Bratton, received most of the preseason publicity, but a few rookies on other teams have stepped up to make an immediate contribution. Among the best: Maryland's trio of Travis Reed, Grant Catalino and Ryan Young; Duke's Mike Manley; and Syracuse's John Galloway.

Who can we expect to see in the NCAA tournament?

It's too early to start playing bracketologist, but it's a safe bet to say the ACC will dominate the bids: Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia should all make the field of 16. Notre Dame, Syracuse, Georgetown and Cornell are on their way to punching tickets as well. The winner of the April 12 meeting between Army and Navy should also make the field. There is still plenty of lacrosse to be played, and this is fluid at best.

Now that spring is here, get outside and watch a game -- or if you can't get to a game, let it come to you. The ESPN family of networks is broadcasting over 40 games this season, including the NCAA tournament.

Quint Kessenich covers college and professional lacrosse for ESPN. He can be reached at quint@insidelacrosse.com.