June 13, 2011

UnCensered: Finishing Touches on Bizarre Season

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

What specialization? The entire first team All-American midfield, including Cornell's Roy Lang (pictured), consists of players who can handle the rock and play defense with equal aplomb.

© Greg Wall

Duke's 13-11 regular season win over Virginia happened just a month and a half ago. But with the vast transformation the Wahoos made from April to May, that midseason ACC throwdown seems like it happened back when Bacharach bucket helmets were trending.

Having watched that early afternoon game in April, I admit I was taken aback at the time with how easily the Dookies dispatched the Cavaliers. While the score might not show it, UVA looked sloppy and disorganized on offense, and the Wahoos were entirely outclassed by the Blue Devils between the lines.

Putting those losses entirely on the backs of Shamel and Rhamel Bratton, or on the fact that Steele Stanwick was out with an injury, makes for an easy explanation. But the truth is, none of the Wahoos played particularly well that day.

Defenseman Harry Prevas – filling in for the injured Matt Lovejoy – didn't look ready. Bray Malphrus had to get bumped from long stick middie to close defense because he couldn't hang with Duke's athletes on the wings. Freshman attackman Mark Cockerton was entirely ineffective in a catch-and-shoot role. Matt White and Nick O'Reilly weren't particularly confident carrying the ball.

Of course, those midseason stumbles didn't prove fatal. They were more like scar tissue. After removing the Bratton twins (and when Steele Stanwick's leg injuries began to heal), and relying primarily on a zone defense and more methodical grinding offensive attack, the Cavaliers started to roll. And Prevas, Malphrus, Cockerton, White and O'Reilly went from guys with something to prove to vital cogs of a championship squad.

Virginia's title run (and I use the word "run" figuratively here) capped a bizarre end to a bizarre season.

Syracuse didn't make the final four for the second year in a row, and again saw most of their top-end talent conglomerate on the defensive side of the field. (The only way you were going to see an Air Gait or a finalizer in the Carrier Dome this season was by digging out your VCR.)

Cornell's star attackman Rob Pannell, who had the Tewaaraton seemingly locked up by April, lost it after Stanwick outplayed him head-to-head in the NCAA quarterfinals in East Hempstead.

Denver coach Bill Tierney, who first gained notoriety for crafting quick-sliding defenses at Princeton in the 1990s, was led an entirely different revolution out west, showing you could take a team from outside the I-95 or I-90 sightlines (and chock full of Canadian talent) all the way to championship weekend.

With more than two weeks to digest all the story lines of 2011 (not to mention those press box crab cakes), here are a couple things I took from this season.

Offensive as ever

At one point in this season, I wondered aloud whether teams with stalwart defenses and pedestrian offenses could buck recent history and win a title. For the previous five years, the Division I national champion has been a team with a top-three scoring offense -- the one exception being the 2007 Hopkins outfit that had Paul Rabil, Stephen Peyser, and Kimmel running on its first midfield line. But in late April, with Notre Dame and Syracuse firmly entrenched at the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings, respectively, I didn't think it was too far of a stretch to say that a squad built from the backline up would potentially take home some postseason hardware.

As it turned out, the Division I final four had three teams that were among the top six offenses (Duke, Denver, and Virginia)m and the group with the most effective offense, UVA (third), ended up winning it at all. Turns out you still need to be able consistently generate in the half-field to get through the May gauntlet.

Slow motion for me

On that note, it seems like criticism against the possession-oriented lacrosse that first took root on those aforementioned Tierney squads reached a fever pitch. Some of the most established and well-respected lacrosse media members and coaches sounded the bell, advocating for a shot clock or various other ways to speed the game up.

Maybe it's because for a second year in a row, the championship game was a low-scoring, single digit affair.

Or maybe it's because even a team like Syracuse, which historically has never seen a fast break or unsettled situation it didn't like, had to dig in its heels during a bunch of slow-it-down grinders.

Or maybe it's because of the "scary" baseball scores, whether it's the Orange winning back-to-back 5-4 games against Hopkins and Villanova, or Loyola taking down cross-town rival Towson 3-2.

The reasons the pace has slowed have been well documented. Advancements in stick technology made it easier to hold the ball (unlike, say, hockey). Hyper-athletic defensemen, well-organized schemes and comprehensive scouting made it plenty difficult to score. And coaches began taking more conservative approaches, using possession time like a weapon.

As for me, I support rule changes that try to open up the game. Both the NBA and NFL have gone to great lengths to protect scoring and the fluidity of offense (think outlawing the hand check rule in basketball or the five-yard bump rule in football).

I will say I have a couple questions about a shot clock. I went to Annapolis in mid-March to see Navy take on Towson, and remember the Midshipmen taking their time on offense in a grueling first half. But those long possessions seemed less about any calculating plan to slow the game down, and more about Navy having a difficult time against a bunch of very athletic, very capable Towson defenders (Peter Mezzanotte anybody?). Eventually, the Mids probed the Tiger defense enough that the game opened up. Navy ended up winning, 14-11.

Personally, I don't know if a shot clock would've helped. It might have even inhibited the Mids from scoring more goals.

Just a thought.

Getting beyond 'draw and dump'

During my freshman year of college, my coach (who now runs a top-tier Division I program) was talking to me about the 2005 Detroit Pistons. He remarked about how much more advanced basketball offenses were than college lacrosse offenses. Certainly, a Rip Hamilton mid-range jumper looked easier to make than a low angled 10-yard shot on the run.

I don't know if college lacrosse offenses are now as sophisticated as any of the pick-and-roll stuff in the NBA, but teams are definitely being innovative.

Inside Lacrosse's Christain Swezey did a nice job documenting Villanova's free-flowing, motion-style offense. Denver turned a lot of heads with its Canadian-infused offense, where crafty attackers hang around the pipes.

Probably most notable is that the Wahoos' success in May corresponded with scrapping the inefficient split-dodging routine from up top and going to more two-man games and pick plays from behind.

Steele City

I love the Tewaaraton. To an outsider at least, there doesn't seem to be any criteria for the award, and unless there's a clear runaway for the bronze, usually some sort of high-noon drama is involved.

This year the committee was obviously willing to forgive Stanwick's injury-plagued middle of the season and cast their vote for the guy with the best postseason performance since Paul Rabil took Boston hostage in 2008.

I'll admit I've had my doubts whether the junior attacker is in the same mold as Connor Gill or Matt Ward. But after watching him during these playoffs, I think any questions I had came about more because he was miscast.

During his freshman year, playing alongside senior staples Danny Glading and Garrett Billings, Stanwick (a natural right-hander) was forced to man the left side. He still had 58 points.

His next two seasons saw him learn to adjust to being the primary ball carrier and distributor (and having to deal with a team's best defenseman) at attack, while still taking a a backseat to a bunch of midfield dodgers who needed a ton of touches.

By May, however, Stanwick became the unquestioned leader of the Virginia offense. A savvy quarterback who could call his own number, the junior did a masterful job getting guys involved, finding open cutters, and picking his own spots as well.

Jack of all trades

Who said today's midfielders can't do it all?

Take one look at the first team All-American midfield list and you don't see a bunch of split-dodging phenomenons allergic to the defensive side of the field.

Stony Brook's Kevin Crowley, Hopkins' John Ranagan, Cornell's Roy Lang and Notre Dame's David Earl are all primary offensive threats, can handle a pole, are great on the fac-off wing and can play some mean d-mid.

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