February 29, 2012

UnCensered: Is The Game Slow and Is Parity Real?

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

The Orange last season averaged their fewest goals per game this century. Will that theme continue in 2012, as part of a trend of "scores coming down across the board," according to Virginia coach Dom Starsia?
© Greg Wall

For the third straight year I'm back to write "UnCensered." A brainchild of Lacrosse Magazine editor Matt DaSilva, the name of my column derives in part from my last name and in part from featuring the inane and irreverent musings of a Division III washout with a full cable package.

It's not even March, and we're already going through the annual early-season rituals. A couple upsets and close scores already have everyone screaming parity. Johns Hopkins message board posters have either given up on the season or are calling for widespread changes after beating mid-majors Towson, Delaware and Siena by an average of four goals. Not to mention, the speed-the-game-up advocates are celebrating the ultimate coup: Denver's Bill Tierney, the mastermind behind the quick slide and the "let's turn this game into a half-field slug-fest," is now advocating for a shot clock.

Here are a few things I've thought about this season in a steady stream-of-lax-consciousness.

Tick Tock

Researching the history of the indoor box game last year, I learned that the sport didn't always have a shot clock. But sometime during the 1950s, a team in a championship game took an early lead and then sat on the ball for the rest of the game. The Canadians were so upset -- they had booed and hissed all game – that the sport instituted a shot clock the next year.

Since then teams have had just 30 seconds to shoot the ball indoors, and offenses adapted. To score quickly, teams now use two-man and pick games. Personally, I think the end-to-end action and quick hits make watching box offense more enjoyable than the "spin it, run a substitution play, dodge, redodge" pattern we have outdoors.

Earlier this week, I asked Virginia coach Dom Starsia if there was any chance that we were going to see another barnburner like the 22-21 Syracuse win in the Carrier Dome in 1997 when the Cavaliers host the Orange on Sunday. After gently reminding me that the Wahoos had a midweek game against Mount St. Mary's (which they won, 17-5, on Tuesday), Starsia said that he didn't think that that the Cavs and Orange could play to 17-16, much less a 40-goal game. Even programs that are inclined to play up-tempo have recently adopted more grinding approaches.

Virginia seems to prefer getting in battles of half-field efficiency, taking down Stony Brook last weekend with a steady dose of two-man games behind the cage and some zone defense. In 2011, the Orange averaged their fewest goals per game (10.8) this century.

"Scores are coming down across the board this year, and I'm not sure exactly why," Starsia said. "I'm sure Coach Corrigan and Coach Tambroni will talk about how great a game [a 4-3 Penn State win over Notre Dame on Sunday] it was. But I'm not sure if the fans really want to see 4-3."

As much as people want to point the finger entirely at the coaches for nursing and guarding possessions, Starsia was pointing out that it's much harder to score these days.

So the shot clock isn't a total panacea. Certainly it won't solve hyper-athletic defenseman or complex defensive packages. And it probably unfairly punishes offenses that aren't trying to actively waste time, but are instead having real problems initiating.

But just like the indoor game, where 30 seconds forced teams to develop schemes that emphasized quick hits, I think a shot clock would allow field offenses to evolve as well.

Count me in.

Parity and The Pioneers

Ohio State upset Denver. Drexel gave the reigning champion Cavaliers all they could handle in West Philly. Hartford put the Terrapin faithful on upset alert for three quarters. North Carolina needed an Alex Smith-like performance from faceoff technician R.G. Keenan in the fourth quarter to pull away from Navy.

Still, I'm not convinced that parity really exists in Division I.

Because generally, the statistical indicators that differentiate the elite teams is whether they have a top-tier offense (Notre Dame notwithstanding). Since 2006, six of the last seven national champions have had a top-three offense. Three of the four 2011 final four squads were among the top six teams in scoring.

So the ability to fill it up separates the haves from the have nots. In this context, these early-season upsets make more sense. Even the high-powered offenses find that getting the kinks out and developing chemistry takes time. In mid-February, defense will always have the advantage. (Exhibit A: Notre Dame's defensive dismantling of an explosive Duke squad.)

On that note, I'm hitching a ride on the Denver bandwagon.

Yes, I know they got ground up by a disciplined Buckeyes squad. Yes, they were sloppy with the ball. Yes, they're a little green on defense. Yes, sophomore goalkeeper Jamie Faus probably wishes he could've had a couple of those shots back.

But I haven't seen an offense consistently generate that many quality looks since Matt Ward, Kyle Dixon and the rest of the Wahoos took the NCAA hostage in 2006. I have a feeling that Tierney's cadre of slick-sticked Canadians (Mark Matthews, Jeremy Noble, Cam Flint and newcomer Wes Berg) will make it to Boston when it's all said and done.

What if Mike Chanenchuck stayed at Princeton and played alongside Tom Schreiber in the Tigers' midfield?
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Hilltop Hangover

On Friday night, I left work and sauntered over to the Georgetown-Maryland game. Full disclosure: growing up in Northern Virginia, I was enthralled by Brodie Merrill's over-the-head checks and Walid Hajj's spin moves, and began rooting for the Hoyas.

So it was hard for me to watch Georgetown get blown out by the Terps. Say what you want about those Hoya teams a few years back that were skewered for underachieving with blue-chip recruits. They may have squandered some big leads, not stepped up in a few games, or had a couple midfielders with a penchant for shooting the ball 10 feet over the cage. But I never saw them get run off the field.

Last weekend, the Hoyas were completely manhandled between the stripes. Frankly, I'm not sure if that's the kind of thing a team can improve upon.

One positive: senior defenseman Bobby Boyle, who has dealt with some injuries during his career, looks great down low.

A Few Random Thoughts

  • Over the last decade, there have been only a few personnel changes that drastically altered the college lacrosse landscape. Matt Rewkowski transferred to Johns Hopkins from Duke in 2004. After 2006, Duke recruits Ken Clausen (Virginia), Scott Kocis (Georgetown) and Craig Dowd (Georgetown) opted out of their commitments to attend other schools. But to me, none of the "what-ifs" are as interesting as if Mike Chanenchuck (who looked rusty, but good for the Terrapins on Friday) had stayed at Princeton. Because if he were playing catch with the Tigers' sophomore phenom and high school teammate Tom Schreiber, that could have been special.
  • Johns Hopkins' Tucker Durkin is the best defenseman I've seen this year. A Tom Garvey, vanilla defense clone but bigger, more skilled and more athletic. I'm eagerly waiting to see how many "straight down Charles Street" references announcer Eamon McAnaney can splice into Durkin's end-to-end rushes this season.
  • I'll admit, while watching Siena take on Hopkins on ESPNU on Saturday, I kept expecting Jared Leto to jump out on commercial breaks ready to bring the house down. Seems like ESPNU has scrapped the "Closer to the Edge" bit.

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