April 22, 2011

UnCensered: Certifiable Sucker for ACC

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Converted attackman Joe Cummings leads Maryland midfielders with 24 goals and could prove to be a factor Friday if North Carolina employs a zone defense in the teams ACC semifinal encounter.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Look, I get it. The ACC tournament in lacrosse isn't the same as in basketball. There are only four teams in the conference. There's no AQ at stake. Every squad this year already has its NCAA ticket punched. All that's on the line is some good 'ole RPI-padded stats, a potential higher seed in the NCAA tournament, and some non-national championship hardware to carry around. You know, nothing important.

But as for me, I'm a certifiable sucker for ACC lacrosse, and am presently excited for this weekend's festivities. Because in this era of the 7-5 slugfest, the four teams that comprise the Atlantic Coast Conference can't often be accused of nursing possessions and grinding the game down to a halt.

For those Quixotic lacrosse fans looking for a place where defenders will still throw checks, transition ain't a four-letter word, attackmen will go the rack and midfielders have the green light to run by their guy, the ACC tournament is probably a good place to start. Of course, as I write this, Virginia's Dom Starsia and Carolina's Joe Breschi are probably making the final touches to gameplans that will put a heavy premium on zone defense and try to make the game less about getting up and down the field. But hey, you can't win 'em all.

A preview of tonight's semifinals:

No. 2 seed North Carolina vs. No. 3 seed Maryland - 5 p.m.

What happened the last time: It's one of the more bizarre box scores of the season. Maryland's Curtis Holmes went 15-for-20 at the draw circle and the Terps raced out to an early lead, and yet they still got rocked 11-6 (on their home field no less). Maryland's problems were numerous that day, but probably none more evident than an anemic settled offense. After scoring four first-quarter goals, the Terrapin offense had little answer for the Carolina zone defense that stretched all the way out to sharpshooter Grant Catalino. Tar Heel freshman Pat Foster filled in for Thomas Wood to score three goals in the romp.

Why North Carolina will win: Carolina has the personnel if it decides to throw zone at the Terps again. Rangy poles Ryan Flanagan, Charlie McComas and Mark Staines can each get out, throw checks and cover a lot of ground. On offense, Wood and Marcus Holman are both back from injury. And if this game turns into a half-field grinder, the Tar Heels have a whole host of guys (Bitter, Dunster, Galasso) who can create their own shot and generate offense.

Why Maryland will win: The issues in that last game started when Ryan Young was given a three-minute, non-releasable stick penalty -- think Bill McGlone in the 2005 playoffs -- at the beginning of the second quarter. It was then that Carolina started chipping away at the lead and moving into the zone. Crippling stick penalties aside, the Terrapins should dominate the game between the 30s (an area where Carolina has frankly struggled). Besides having a stable chock full of athletes who thrive in transition (Brian Farrell, Jesse Bernhardt, Landon Carr), defensemen (the Schmidts) who can put the clamps on Bitter and Galasso, and an advantage between the pipes, there's also the whole experience factor. Carolina's going to learn very quickly how well its talented youth movement translates to late postseason runs.

X-factor: Maryland midfielder Joe Cummings. If Carolina turns this game into a slow-it-down, half-field slugfest and plays a lot of zone (as it probably should), the Terps are going to need some guys to step up getting the defense moving and finding seams. I'll admit, I've underestimated Cummings before. He's certainly not an A.J. Haugen-Jay Jalbert-Josh Sims prototype as a midfielder. But the instinctive ex-attackman has scored 24 goals this year, twice as many as the next Terrapin midfielder, and if the Heels go zone, Maryland's going to need him to continue to his crafty ways.

Prediction: Carolina can't stop Maryland in the unsettled, and the Terps win 10-8.

No. 1 seed Duke vs. No. 4 seed Virginia - 7:30 p.m.

What happened last time: Just six days ago, these two teams played on a rain-soaked field in Durham, with Duke winning 13-11. Duke midfielder Robert Rotanz scored four goals, and the Blue Devils never seemed to have much problem with the Wahoo zone defense. The Cavaliers, playing without the services of recently minted ACC Player of the Year Steele Stanwick, didn't have a terrible day on offense, but missed plenty of doorstep opportunities.

Why Duke will win: First, I think it's fair to say the Blue Devils have a bit of a mental edge at this point. Duke has completely owned the series ever since Danowski, Greer, O'Hara and company arrived on campus.

More important, I think the Dookies play harder (you don't see any Blue Devil midfielders whiffing on over-the-head checks like Shamel Bratton was last weekend) and are more athletic between the stripes. Did anyone notice the Cavs having to bump Chris Clements up from defense to the faceoff wing because they were getting entirely out-classed there? Certainly, guys like long pole C.J. Costabile, Greg DeLuca, Tom Montelli and Jake Tripucka are a load going from defense to offense. Not to mention with UVA defenseman Matt Lovejoy shelved for the rest of year (shoulder), I'm not sure the Cavs have anyone to match up with freshman phenom Jordan Wolf and his whole stop-and-go routine.

Why Virginia will win: I didn't think Shamel played well last week. Sure, he dialed in a long-distance bomb, had an assist and drew tons of attention in the half-field. But I also thought he wasn't playing hard on defense, and was probably sulking from his move to the second line. Still, there was one play last week where he caught the ball on the wing, looked like he was about to pull the trigger, and then hitched to his left hand so hard that his defender's jock strap ended up somewhere in downtown Durham. Bratton didn't convert on the opportunity, but it was the kind of explosive, visual reminder that the Wahoos have plenty of what other teams don't -- a whole cadre of elite midfielders (Rhamel Bratton, Colin Briggs, Rob Emery, etc.), who can generate offense against anyone (including Duke) at the drop of a hat.

X-factor: Virginia defenseman Chris Clements. Part of me looks at the Virginia offense and thinks they it was a Steele Stanwick quarterbacking job away from winning that game last week. But just as important as being more efficient on the offensive end is that the Cavs are really going to need to have a couple athletes step up on defense and clear the rock besides Chris LaPierre. Clements is the most athletic of the crew, and because of his former short stick pedigree, the most likely candidate.

Prediction: If you had asked me this preseason, I would have said Virginia in a rout. Now? Whether or not Stanwick plays, I still think Duke's the better team. 11-10 Blue Devils.

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