A title game of different proportions

John Desko's Syracuse team faces greater expectations than most. Jim Rogash/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA -- Legitimacy, success even, has become progressively trickier to define in our current sports world. It used to be simple -- to the winner went the spoils and all of the accolades along with it.

But in a world of no athlete left behind, in which every kid gets a trophy -- and even the NCAA, on occasion, refers to the non-advancing team instead of the losing team -- what matters? Can we even use the word "failure" anymore?

On Monday, Duke and Syracuse will meet to crown a national champion in men's lacrosse. Both want to win desperately. Everyone who gets this far wants to win desperately. Rob Pannell set an NCAA points record here on Saturday afternoon, but his Cornell team lost to Duke in the national semifinals, leaving a teary-eyed Pannell to claim, "I'd give up everything I achieved individually to get a chance to play on Monday.''

It wasn't trite or cliché. It was pure, raw honesty.

So toss away who wants it then. That's not the question, if it ever really has been.

No, the question in today's sports world is who needs it more, for which team will the championship serve as the ultimate barometer of legitimacy and success?

"This thing we do, if it was always about whether it was worth it if you weren't the champion, then nobody would do it,'' Denver coach Bill Tierney said after his team lost a 9-8 heartbreaker to Syracuse. "There's so many reasons to do this thing, and maybe losing is one of them.''

Would it mean more, for example, for the upset-minded Indiana Pacers to have their moment and beat the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs or for heavily favored Miami to do what's expected and win?

Did it matter more that Duke beat Butler for the 2010 men's basketball national championship or that Butler had a chance?

Not so simple to answer, is it?

It's the same here on Monday, when the Blue Devils are the Pacers and the Orange are the Heat (or maybe Syracuse is actually Duke, the Mike Krzyzewski version, and the Blue Devils are Brad Stevens' Bulldogs).

Duke survived a Cornell rally to win 16-14. It was the Blue Devils' seventh consecutive Final Four appearance, which typically would imply that the Blue Devils are something of a dynasty, expected to ho-hum their way to a national championship. Except Duke is now just 3-4 in those national semifinal appearances with but one trophy -- from 2010 -- to show for all of those Final Four berths.

In the NFL, we'd call them the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s and chide them even for failing to close the deal. No one is saying that in lacrosse circles. Certainly no one is saying that at Duke, where the words "Duke" and "lacrosse," when googled together, elicited nothing but scandal and embarrassment.

This team started the season 2-4, beating Jacksonville and Mercer, losing to Denver, Notre Dame, Penn and Maryland. Since, the Blue Devils have lost just once -- to rival North Carolina, and that was by one goal in an 18-17 barnburner.

"It's just confidence in the system,'' goalie Kyle Turri said. "It takes a little time for everyone to buy into what the coaches are preaching, but once we do, we start to see the success we can have from it."

If Duke loses on Monday, the Blue Devils will be disappointed -- as heartbroken as Pannell in the moment, as disappointed as Denver after coming so tantalizingly close to realizing a dream. "Perspective 15, 20 minutes after a tough loss like this is maybe even tougher than the loss,'' Tierney said.

But Duke will be OK, because the ashes around this program still have something of a smolder. Success and legitimacy are about building and excellence and reputation; a trophy is a sweet little bonus.

That's not the way it goes at Syracuse, where the Orange will play for their 12th national title. Until Syracuse beat Yale a week ago, this senior class carted around the game's most overbearing albatross: Would it become the first Syracuse class since 1979 to not make a Final Four?

And so the Orange beat Yale to make it here and then rallied to top Denver, with Derek Maltz scoring on a rebound goal with 19 seconds left. So you'd expect, maybe, there'd be relief?

Nope. How about the new question: Will this Syracuse team become only the fourth since 1983 to leave town without a national championship ring? This is what it is to be the Derek Jeter of lacrosse.

"I went to Syracuse because they played in the Final Four so many times, and we have 11 national championships,'' senior JoJo Marasco said. "That's why you go to play there. It's just expected.''

It's not like it's been forever since the Orange won -- four years to be exact. Then, in 2009, it was for the second of back-to-back titles. Certainly no one will shun the Orange should they return from the Memorial Day trip to Philly empty-handed, but they will be disappointed.

Yet three months ago, they would have been thrilled to even have a chance to play for a title.

Last season, an unseeded Syracuse team lost to Duke in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, finishing a pedestrian 9-8. Consequently, when this season began, the Orange were a middle of the pack national team. No one knew what to expect, not even head coach John Desko.

"With the season we had a year ago and the number of losses and with some of the kids we had graduated, I could see polls or coaches voting us in that category,'' Desko said. "But especially this senior group took it personally, and they thought they were better than that.''

They were right. The Orange have lost just three times -- in double overtime in the season opener to Albany, by one goal to Villanova and by one goal to Hobart. In a topsy-turvy lacrosse season, it was the Orange who emerged as the No. 1 seed in this tournament.

In other words, Syracuse in one season has somehow managed to overachieve and become the favorite to win it all.

Which should be impossible, or at least nonsensical.

Except in today's sports world, in which legitimacy and success are harder to gauge, it makes perfect sense.