April 28, 2011

UnCensered: Can't Deny the 'D' in D-I

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Syracuse fans are more likely to be enthralled by a Joel White strip and coast-to-coast score than any Air Gait-type maneuvers these days -- symptomatic of a defensive trend among the best teams in Division I men's lacrosse.

© Greg Wall

Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.

It's an old adage, probably first uttered by some stuffy Bear Bryant/Woody Hayes lookalike who preferred a big hit and three yards of dust to the glitz and glamour that usually goes along with playing good offense.

I've heard various adaptations of the proverb repeated enough in lacrosse circles – both during my playing days and now in my immobile ESPNU couch years – to know that many have adopted this general line of thinking from the gridiron.

The problem, though, is that in today's Division I, it's doesn't have much statistical backing. This is not to say teams can win with a paper mache defense (they can't). But the one constant of all but one of the last five national champions in Division I is those teams have been in the top three in scoring offense. (The one exception? The 2007 Johns Hopkins team that had Paul Rabil, Stephen Peyser and Mike Kimmel as its primary dodging options.)

When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Most teams that have made it deep into the playoffs are going to have well-coached, quality defenses. But in the post-Tierney era, where quick slides and hyper-athletic defenseman are the norm, what many of those squads don't necessarily have are the personnel to consistently generate offense. So if a team is explosive and can put up a lot of goals (and play some good defense), it's going to have distinct advantages come May.

From the Matt Ward/Kyle Dixon offensive juggernaut at UVA in 2006 to last year's transition-friendly Duke squad, that's how it's played out over the past five years.

But in 2011, I've watched enough lacrosse that I'm starting to reconsider my thesis. Only four of the contenders -- Cornell, Denver, Duke and Virginia -- have the kind of statistical offensive resumes that usually translate to hoisting a trophy come Memorial Day. Meanwhile,  nationally ranked schools like Syracuse, Notre Dame (29th!), Maryland, Hopkins and Hofstra don't even crack the top eight in scoring.

If last week's ACC tournament is any indication, this year's playoffs seem ripe for teams whose strengths gravitate more towards the backline. Maryland, with arguably the least impressive half-field offense in the ACC, won the conference championship with a stingy defense (holding Carolina and Duke to six and nine goals, respectively), by making plays between the stripes, and capitalizing when it was needed.

So maybe 2011 is the year when a big-time offense isn't a prerequisite for postseason hardware, and whoever has a dominant defense and an opportunistic, timely offense will be the one left standing Memorial Day.

Certainly, games change and evolve, with advantages often ebbing and flowing from offense to defense. In the NFL during the late 1980s and 90s, star quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Farve or John Elway seemed necessary for winning a Super Bowl. Yet only a couple of years later, journeymen QBs like Trent Dilfer relied on stifling defenses to get rings too.

The question, then, is have we entered a defensive era in college lacrosse? Are teams so well-coached and chock full of athletes at long pole and short stick d-middie that they can ride them all the way through May?

It certainly seems like it. Dominant midfielders and attackmen seem to be near-extinct. Everyone crowns Rob Pannell (and rightly so) as the best player in college lacrosse, but often forget that if it were only a couple years ago, there were a number of guys -- Ryan Boyle, Mike Powell, Matt Ward, Ben Rubeor, Sean Morris, Chris Unterstein (to name a few) -- who were equally or close to as good.

Have we entered a defensive era in college lacrosse? Are teams so well-coached and chock full of athletes at long pole and short stick d-middie that they can ride them all the way through May? It certainly seems like it.

Maybe some kind of historical autocorrect will come on, and Colin Briggs and the Brattons can split dodge the Cavaliers back from oblivion. Or Duke's Justin Turri, David Lawson, Robert Rotanz, Zach Howell and Jordan Wolf will lead the Blue Devils to a repeat. Or Pannell can carry the Big Red on the back of his zig-zag routine.

But personally, I have my doubts. This Saturday night, No. 1-ranked Notre Dame will take on No. 4-ranked Syracuse in the Carrier Dome as a sort of showcase for teams with some offensive holes trying to ride great cover guys, ground ball magnets and top-notch goalies all the way through the playoffs.

At some point Syracuse fans -- used to the likes of the Gaits, Maracheck, Lockwood, the Powells, Coffman, Leveille, Nims, etc. -- will probably be enthralled by a 7-6 squeaker. But instead of hoping for finalizers at "X" or "Air Gaits," they're probably going to be cheering for Joel White to strip a midfielder and take it coast-to-coast. Or for John Galloway to stop another shot on the doorstep. Or for defenseman John Lade to turn back another helpless Notre Dame attackman on the corner.

As for the Orange attackmen, they just need to protect their sticks, value the ball, finish their opportunities and pray they can get to eight goals.

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