March 7, 2012

UnCensered: Virginia-Syracuse A Blueprint for May Success

by Joel Censer |

The type of end-to-end game played by Syracuse and Virginia on Sunday should be used as a blueprint for teams that want to win a national championship, writes Joel Censer. Having offensive moxie, like Tim Desko, helps.
© John Strohsacker/ 

It's been nearly three days since Virginia took down Syracuse 14-10 (on the ESPN mothership no less), and the lacrosse pundit class and message-board intelligentsia have all come to consensus. UVa and 'Cuse played lacrosse the way it was meant to be played.

The end-to-end rushes. Tim Desko catching the ball in transition and putting the ball through his legs (again). Colin Briggs slashing through half the Orange defense. Syracuse senior midfielder Bobby Eilers doing his best Brian Solliday impression. Wahoo Scott McWilliams pestering Desko with those big one-handed slap checks. Brian Megill giving Steele Stanwick four quarters of business.

Clearly, the Sunday night barnburner in Charlottesville resonated with lacrosse folks looking for something other than risk-averse, highly choreographed half-field lacrosse.

Of course the game stood out even more because 48 hours earlier Johns Hopkins had taken down Princeton in a 10-8 chess match, a game I admittedly watched – save one bench-clearing, chest-pumping moment – mostly on fast-forward on my DVR.

The biggest difference between the two games wasn't just a couple fast breaks. Instead, it was the confidence and willingness of the Wahoos and Orange to zip passes. On clears, Matt Lovejoy, Harry Prevas and McWilliams were whipping the ball cross-field. In transition, Owen Van Arsdale didn't think twice to try and hit a cutting Bobby Hill. They didn't connect, but converted long pole Chris Clements cleaned up the trash.

I don't remember when or who said it (I'm pretty sure it was Quint Kessenich during the Johns Hopkins-Princeton telecast), but a commentator said that it was a good strategy -- within the current rules -- for teams with a lead and a bunch of time left in the final quarter to sit on the ball. That Hopkins running their big-little or double invert (you know, the kind of offensive set that'd make dried paint blush), was smart.

In the short-term, that's of course true. Get a lead. Take the air of out of the ball. Yeah, you're usually going to win.

But if you're at a place like Hopkins, you're trying to take home titles, not just beat mid-majors like Siena by a couple goals in February.

To me, the problem with this kind of half-field possession-oriented lacrosse (all your possessions belong to us!) is less about aesthetics and more about tactics. I'm not advocating that teams not care about controlling tempo or running their offensive sets. Of course, players need to pick their spots and value the rock. But holding the ball behind the net for minutes at a time doesn't foster creativity or develop chemistry on offense. On an individual level, it doesn't build confidence and empower guys to make plays.

Platitudes aside, winning a championship is more about having some moxie on the offensive end (the one common trait the last four title teams had was a top three scoring offense). Because in the playoffs, when the refs aren't throwing flags and the transition opportunities dry up, teams have to be able to get it going in the half-field. I know. Somewhere, a disgusted Woody Hayes is looking down and winding up.

But think about it. Syracuse didn't make the final four weekend the past couple years when they had the best defense in the country. Meanwhile, Duke won in 2010 with an unproven freshman and former walk-on in goal during the playoffs. A year later, UVa took home their own championship with a patchwork zone defense and a bunch of young guys and role players patrolling the backline.

To me, the UVa-'Cuse game was more than just some platform to wax nostalgic about "the fastest game on two feet." It was blueprint for how to win in May.

Here are a few other thoughts from the weekend:

  • Watching the Wahoos on offense, I get convinced that generating from behind the goal is more efficient than any other offensive set. Some would argue fairly that UVa just has the unique personnel to run the two-man and pick plays from X. Because if Stanwick or some premier attackman-turned-midfielder doesn't score then they draw a slide. If they draw a double, then a crease guy is open and guys like Rob Emery or Colin Briggs are coming down for a set shot. It's Clockwork Orange (and blue). That's what the late-season, post-Brattons renaissance was mostly about to me. An Xs and Os revelation that big-time midfielders shooting on the run isn't necessarily the most efficient or effective way to score goals. A ten-yard step-down or crease finish is often better than guys firing away from the alleys. When I hear how Hopkins' rumblin' John Ranagan, John Greeley and Rob Guida have Mendoza-line shooting percentages, part of me just think that in today's game it's just hard to hit those kind of shots.

  • Does anyone know why Duke decided to short-stick Maryland's Mike Chanenchuk on Saturday? I like John Haus, and know he's a big-time threat to dip under on his dodge, but Chanenchuk is a bonafide All-American midfielder.
  • If Zach Palmer's right-handed drive past Princeton All-American defenseman Chad Wiedmaier said anything, it's that the hybrid revolution is here and will be televised. A Canadian by trade, Palmer had driven up the left pipe with the stick in his right hand. Wiedmaier trailed, assuming that the former box player would eventually turn back to his strong hand. But Palmer, who also attended Brodie Merrill's Hill Academy and has played field lacrosse for awhile now, kept going, got top side and stuck it past Tyler Fiorito.
  • I know Jordan Wolf is a bit nicked up. But the past few weekends, the sophomore has to have also realized that he's now the primary target of a team's game plan. Last year, I wrote how about how dodging attackmen (Johnny Christmas, Billy Bitter, etc.) often have their production slip as they get older because of wear-and-tear, injuries and extensive game-planning. Here's to hoping Wolf's stop-and-go routine starts rolling soon.

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