May 10, 2012

UnCensered: Mirror Image Matchups in First Round

by Joel Censer |

Denver and North Carolina figure to get up and down on Saturday night, making possessions, and faceoff man Chase Carraro, even more important.
© Trevor Brown

Hello, playoffs. No need for a long-winded intro. The college lacrosse post-season is where reputations are made, seasons are salvaged (or lost), Tewaaraton bronze is earned and a small liberal arts college in Central Pennsylvania can sell out its stadium in 24 hours. That should be all you need to know.

As I followed the selections online on Sunday night I couldn't help but salivate at the matchups. Forget teams with opposing styles and philosophical differences having to prepare for one another. No Bill Tierney-styled defenses trying to slow-down some Powell-inspired full-field Syracuse juggernaut. In 2012, teams will square off against their doppelganger.

UMass hosts Colgate, pitting the leading point scorers in Division I (Will Manny and Peter Baum) and two of the top three scoring offenses against one another. The shoot first, possess later theme continues in North Carolina where a Canadian-infused Denver squad makes the trek east to take on a potent, ankle-breaking Tar Heel offense led by Marcus Holman. Eight miles across town, Duke was "rewarded" with a third seed and first round game against a reinvigorated Syracuse, which found its run-and-gun swagger while winning the Big East tourney last weekend.

There are also more grinding affairs. Virginia, which made a name wreaking havoc in transition but now relies on more a methodical half-field attack, will face a Princeton squad that has shown an ability to play faster than its historical branding suggests. Yale, meanwhile, has been on a Mikey McDermott-like heater since April, winning with opportunistic offense, solid face-off play and physicality and savvy between the stripes. But the Bulldogs will face an OG (original grinders, that is) Notre Dame squad, which was one of the first to make boa-constrictor defense and probing offense trendy. Expect Notre Dame defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne to play the role of Oreo-cracking Teddy KGB.

Here are four storylines and predictions (the kiss of death) for the first round.

Denver at North Carolina, 7:30 p.m. Saturday

The storylines: Compelling narratives abound here. Can UNC's two freshman attackmen, Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey, keep cutting up ankles in the post-season? Can a hot-and-cold DU squad take care of the ball? How many midfielders do the Tar Heels plan on playing? Will a green Pioneer defense be on ice skates against all the fast-twitch movements going at X? Will UNC's own Canadian middie Chad Tutton be jealous that all his countrymen are picking, slipping and screening for each other on the Denver side? Is this a race to 15 goals?

In my opinion this game is going to be won and lost at the faceoff circle. We know the offenses are more skilled than the defenses here. So possessions really do become the name of the game.

Carolina and Denver are ranked fifth and sixth respectively in faceoff percentage, but each does it differently at the dot. The Heels may have the best technician in the country in Baltimore native and Alex Smith disciple, R.G. Keenan. Denver uses Chase Carraro, an under-recruited kid from Louisville, Ky. who is faster, more athletic, and more skilled than anyone else. Moreover, he gets plenty of help from his wings: Cam Flint, Pat Rogers and Jeremy Noble allow the Pioneers to attack immediately off the draw. In last year's playoffs, JHU's Matt Dolente came in winning a gaudy 67 percent of his faceoffs only to learn the hard way about the Pioneer buzzsaw.

Prediction: I reported a lot of box lacrosse stories this winter. Talking with various Canucks, I learned that guys play multiple games a day indoors. So having a short memory is vital. Lose to Brampton? Figure it out in time for the next one.

While Denver may have had its problems earlier this season, don't put it past the Mark Matthews and the rest of his Canadian outfit to be in that post-season state of mind. 13-9 Pioneers.

Princeton at Virginia, 1 p.m. Sunday

Storyline: The last time these two teams met (save a couple of fall contests) was 2008 during an early March monsoon. Things have changed since then. Virginia scrapped the focus on alley and X dodgers, for more precision-oriented pick games from behind the net. At Princeton, Chris Bates took over for Tierney, and the Tigers began initiating with their own two-man stuff all over the field.

So now we have two teams which generate offense in creative ways, have solid defenses, can pick their spots in transition, have some headliners on both ends of the field, and are veteran outfits with plenty of pride. Whatever advantage Virginia has over the Tigers regarding individual offensive talent could be nullified by a big day from star Princeton netminder Tyler Fiorito.

Prediction: I'm one of the 100 Memphis Grizzlies basketball fans in the country. But to be honest, after Game 1 of their first round matchup against the Clippers, I quit watching. Frankly, I thought the Grizz were deeper, more athletic, and better at just about every position than the Clips. But I knew I wasn't mentally prepared to have to hold on to my seat as Chris Paul sliced and diced in crunch time.

That's sort of how I feel about Steele Stanwick this postseason. (Luckily I'm more emotionally removed from these games.) With the game on the line, I'll bet on the guy who we know can control tempo and make the plays down the stretch. Even if Chad Wiedmaier is giving him some Ivy League business (full of synthetic derivatives and credit default swaps) at GLE. Wahoos, 11-7.

Syracuse at Duke, Noon Saturday

Will Syracuse be a tough out for Duke in the first round?
© John Strohsacker/

Storyline: Orange rising. Last week, 'Cuse was left for dead, needing to win the Big East tournament to not miss its first NCAA tourney since 2007. But in three days the Orange cruised past Villanova and St. John's to extend their season.

Bobby Eilers, a 6-foot-5 behemoth, pumped in eight points. Tommy Palasek was doing the whole jitterbug routine at "X," and showed a bit more of a goal-scoring acumen. Derek Maltz and Timmy Desko were crafty around the crease. Brian Megill was tough on the backline. Hakeem Lecky and a couple other midfielders began answering the bell. Freshman keeper Bobby Wardwell made some stops. At least for a weekend, the Upstate Empire found its groove.

So when Duke drew Syracuse, members of the lacrosse intelligentsia shook their heads. A Blue Devil team that had navigated the ACC tournament gauntlet and came out as champions was compensated with the potentially pesky Orange in Round 1? Didn't Jordan Wolf, CJ Costabile, Robert Rotanz and Co. deserve better than an Orange-tinted fate?

Prediction: Worry for the Blue Devils at your own risk. Personally, I think this matchup is a miserable one for Syracuse. First, I don't think the Orange have anything close to an answer for CJ Costabile at the faceoff X. Neither of the primary faceoff men are dominant draw guys nor are they particularly proficient running from pressure. And if 'Cuse has to bump Megill up, who chases Jordan Wolf around?

While Syracuse may be a team that wants to play fast and generate unsettled goals, I still think an up-and-down battle benefits Duke and all the athletes they'll throw out between the 30s. And in settled offense I can't think of a Syracuse offensive player having an advantageous one-on-one matchup against a group of very rangy, very athletic Duke defenders. Freshmen short-stick defensive-middie Will Haus could be the antidote for Marasco (who has been drawing a pole these days). Duke carves up the Orange like a pumpkin here, 15-8.

Yale at Notre Dame, 5:15 p.m. Sunday

Storyline: For those who like to watch games on fast forward on their DVR, I have just the ... c'mon, I'm just kidding!

Anyway, we saw this past weekend what Yale can do. They aren't going to run by you much on offense, but if you make a misstep or turn your head they are Matt Gibson-to-Deron Dempster-lethal. They also have a collection of poles (loved freshman Harry Kucharczyk) who can defend, take the ball away and pick it up off the ground. Faceoff man Dylan Levings is winning draws (with one leg on the ground no less) at a startling 63 percent clip. Not surprisingly the Elis have slapped together nine straight wins.

Notre Dame meanwhile, got taken down by St. John's last Saturday for its first loss since February. But the Irish still lead the nation in scoring defense. Goaltender John Kemp (also tops in the nation in save percentage), defenseman Kevin Randall and the rest of the switch-friendly Irish defensive corps have a long, decorated history of methodically crushing half-field dreams.

So can Notre Dame snuff out Yale's easy one-timers and force them to earn their goals dodging to the rack? Can Irish faceoff man Liam O'Connor (one of the lone bright spots for the Irish against the Johnnies) go even with Levings? Will the Notre Dame offense resemble the turnover-friendly version that sputtered through three quarters against St. John's or the opportunistic, cagey one that came out near the end of last Saturday's game?

Predicition: I think an early lead is important for the Irish. Yes, I know Notre Dame has made a living clawing back or gutting out those one-goal games. But setting the tempo against Yale is absolutely vital. Because I'm not totally sure the Bulldogs can put up enough goals against a highly-trained Notre Dame defense in settled situations. The Irish throw a golden wrench in the transition-friendly Skull-and-Crossbone machine. 8-4, ND.

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