May 6, 2011

NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Notebook: Defense Puts Penn on Cusp of Playoffs

by Gary Lambrecht |

Freshman goalie Brian Feeney backstops a Penn defense that yields just 7.69 goals per game, a marked improvement from a year ago.

© Kevin P. Tucker

As he began preparations for his second year at the University of Pennsylvania, the primary mission was clear to men's lacrosse coach Mike Murphy.

If the Quakers were going to improve on a 5-8 record and become a factor in the Ivy League race, they had to regroup on defense. They had to set the tone for 2011 at that end of the field.

As the second-seeded Quakers prepare to play third-seeded Harvard in Friday's Ivy League tournament semifinal, part one of the mission is complete. No. 14 Penn (8-5 overall, 4-2 in the Ivy) has transformed its identity, as defense has carried the day in a resurgent spring. And defense is why the Quakers are on the cusp of earning a bid to the NCAA tournament as an at-large entry – unless, of course, they win the league tournament and earn an automatic qualifier.

With senior defenseman, primary cover man and first-team All-Ivy selection Brett Hughes leading the way, and with junior long-stick midfielder Will Koshansky (third in the nation with 3.23 caused turnovers per game) and freshman defenseman Maxx Meyer offering major support, Penn finished the regular season ranked 10th in scoring defense (7.69 goals allowed per game) in Division I.

In each of Penn's losses in 2010, the Quakers gave up at least 10 goals. On six occasions, Penn allowed at least 12 scores. In 2011, the Quakers have surrendered scoring in double digits just four times – all losses.

Penn's commitment to defense paid immediate and – as the season has played out – hugely important dividends. The Quakers opened the year with an 8-3 victory over Duke, followed by an 8-6 win over Bucknell. Regardless of what happens at Cornell this weekend, those quality victories should make Penn worthy of the big tournament.

"Looking back, those two wins kind of validated what we're doing," said Murphy, who runs the team's man-to-man defense, which blends a desire to force turnovers with quick-to-slide principles. "We're pretty aggressive for a slide-and-recover team. We pick our spots [to go for the turnover] in an intelligent way. We talk a lot about seven playing as one. With the way guys are flying around on defense, I think we're ahead of schedule. We had to place an emphasis on defense."

In its eight victories, Penn has allowed an average of 5.4 goals. And the Quakers have been battle-tested, going 3-3 in one-goal games and 2-2 in overtime clashes, including a 13-12 loss to Cornell on March 26. Penn followed up that defeat with a triple-OT, 10-9 win over Yale and a double-OT, 7-6 win over Harvard, both of which strengthened the Quakers' NCAA tournament credentials that include solid RPI (14) and a very strong, fifth-best strength of schedule.

Hofstra's loss has coaches squirming

Delaware's 10-9 upset of top-seeded Hofstra in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association has gotten the attention of numerous coaches. Among them is North Carolina's Joe Breschi, whose No. 12 Tar Heels take on third-ranked Notre Dame on Friday night, six days after the Irish became the last of the Division I unbeatens with an 11-8 loss at Syracuse.

"[The Hofstra loss] makes us squirm a little bit. It makes all of us take note," said Breschi, who wonders if the Pride (13-2) could muscle in on an at-large spot at Carolina's expense.

Actually, with a weak SOS (38) to complement its RPI (12), Hofstra should be sweating. The Tar Heels (9-5) are sitting pretty strong with an RPI of 13 and are sixth in SOS, with quality wins over Penn and Maryland.

A victory over Notre Dame in the regular season finale would only sweeten the pot for Carolina, which should not see its RPI or SOS budge much just by playing the Irish.

Maryland expects hungry Colgate

Maryland coach John Tillman expects Colgate (10-5) to play with its proverbial hair on fire in College Park on Saturday, in the regular season finale for both teams. No. 6 Maryland (10-3) is playing for a possible fifth seed in the NCAA tournament. Colgate's stakes are simpler. It needs to beat the Terps just to secure a seat in the at-large discussion on Selection Sunday.

"We've always been best when we've been the hungry dog," said Tillman, referring to Maryland's ability to bounce back from defeat this year, best evidenced by the Terps' ACC tournament title a week after suffering a heartbreaking, 12-11 loss to Johns Hopkins in overtime. "It will be interesting to see how we handle the hungry dog."

Junior midfielder Joe Cummings is questionable for the Colgate game. Cummings suffered a knee injury at the conference tournament, and has been limited in practice this week. He is tied for the team lead in goals scored (24) and is shooting a blistering, 43 percent.

"We'll see how it goes on Saturday," Tillman said. "Joe is itching to get back, but we've got to look at the bigger picture. I know that his season is not over, and that's the best news."

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