June 26, 2012

Summer Reading Email Exchange: Forman v. Censer

Matt Forman and Joel Censer trade emails on college lacrosse's storylines and stats, big and small

Chris Layne was one of the puzzle pieces in Loyola's new-look offense led by assistant coach Dan Chemotti.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

by Matt Forman and Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Unabashed Bill Simmons-wannabe Joel Censer — he of Uncensered and Coyne v. Censer fame — enlisted Lacrosse Magazine's Matt Forman for the newest volume of the growing Censer brand-building media properties list: Summer Reading Email Exchange, a play off Grantland's Gladwell vs. Simmons.

The result? Well, about 5,500 words covering some of college lacrosse's hot-button storylines and many other worthwhile topics.

This is Part I. Check back Wednesday and Thursday for Parts II and III.

Censer sent the first email, and we kept them going for a full week — from Saturday to Saturday. Here's what transpired...

CENSER: You know you're in the NCAA lacrosse doldrums when you're hanging on every move of the summer coaching carousel.

I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to leave 2012 behind. It's crazy. As a sport, we have this massive end-of-year throwdown in some NFL stadium and, after that, everyone's done with college lacrosse. All the buzzwords, memes and storylines basically get shoved into a couple rushed magazine covers and they're not talked about again (unless you're a Johns Hopkins message board poster) until next January.

But Loyola's win and Peter Baum taking home the Tewaaraton were watershed moments for the sport, right? It's not everyday you see Charles Street's second-class citizens taking home a title or some kid from Portland, Ore., winning the bronze.

Or maybe I just need a life?

FORMAN: Lax is life?

Hey, I don't mind taking a ride on the coaching carousel as much as the next guy. I really liked Providence hiring Duke assistant Chris Gabrielli, whom I spent several days with down in Durham back in April. He's a young, well-respected coordinator who will shape the way the Friars play. (By the way, you know what's funny? How seemingly every breaking news story happens late on Friday afternoon.)

Let's pause on looking ahead to next year because you're right, Joel: 2012 is still fresh in my mind. And really, how could it not be? What a season it was, and you put it so well in your recent column"Call Me Maybe" headline references aside [Editor's note: unintentional] — that the Greyhounds going on a Cinderella run to the national title and the Portland Pistol winning the Tewaaraton were a great sign for the growth of the game and its expanding talent base.

Plus, there were plenty of issues, topics and talking points we haven't fully delved into, and many takeaways from the year that should be brought to the fore: How much have Canadian-inspired box lacrosse concepts influenced the way offense is played? How important are long-stick midfielders in today's game? What will it take for Ivy League teams to be competitive in the postseason? Oh by the way, this isn't going away any time soon: Is it time for a shot clock?

You just can't resist the urge to chirp, chirp at the Homewood faithful, can you? (Mind you, the "Hofstra Flying Dutchmen 2013" thread has 67 pages, and 1327 replies, since mid-May. That's message board hyperactivity. But I love it.)

CENSER: My Hopkins message board dig was less based in reality and more a nod to Google Analytics and Search Engine Optimization. Anytime you litter a story with references to Homewood Field, Del Dressel or banana peels you get 12,309,493,205,832,480,923 more hits.

All the points you brought up deserve attention.

But the most under-reported story in the postseason may have been how Loyola's 2012 renaissance was brought along in part by a change in offensive philosophy. From my understanding (again it wasn't covered much), Hounds coach Charley Toomey had a meeting-of-the-minds with Tufts' Mike Daly and Goucher's Kyle Hannan to discuss various ways to get at least 40 shots a game.

To me, the tête-à-tête was a telltale sign that most coaches (it should be noted that all the guys at that meeting had great years), are beginning to think risk-averse, highly choreographed half-field lacrosse isn't going to win games in May.

Yes, controlling tempo is important. Ditto for valuing the ball. But having some guy sit 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 they'll need to make in the postseason.

Even John Tillman, the brain behind Maryland's grinding big-little games, said as much during the final four when he talked about making sure his guys were accountable for their decisions but not giving them hard and fast rules because, well, that's not the right way to play offense.

So maybe if I really wanted to rile up the Homewood faithful, I'd argue that hording possessions or chipping minutes of clock off in the second half might help you beat Siena in February. But it isn't going to get you through the postseason gauntlet anymore.

Picking up the pieces in the post-Steele Stanwick era is probably as big a task for coach Van Arsdale since having to replace Matt Ward, Kyle Dixon, Matt Poskay and Co. in 2006.

FORMAN: I must've been mistaken. I thought this was an organic email chain, not a shameless self-promoting, click-seeking UnCensered column? If that's the case: Paul Rabil. PJ's Pub. Kyle Harrison. Pete's Grill. Rob Guida.

But seriously. Let's finish the drill.

It's important not to overlook offensive coordinator Dan Chemotti's role in Loyola's offensive revolution. Back in late February when I covered the Greyhounds' game against Charles Street corridor rival Towson, coach Charley Toomey made a point of saying he turned the keys to the offense over to Chemotti. Toomey said at the time he used to wonder if Loyola could take 30 shots in a game, but in 2012 he felt confident they could take 25 in a quarter.

So Toomey deserves credit for recognizing a change was necessary and letting it loose. But Chemotti implemented those changes. For example, he had Loyola play box lacrosse in the winter. He drew up an offense that was designed to put Eric Lusby and Mike Sawyer in situations to get their hands free. Chris Layne inverted more and more as the season wore on, while Justin Ward developed into arguably the nation's top third attackman.

One of the most popular memes this postseason? Possessions win tournament games. It makes sense on the surface, but what do the numbers say?

Loyola won just 4-of-29 faceoffs, and it lost the ground ball battle to Maryland and Notre Dame. And in the other semifinal game, Maryland won fewer faceoffs and picked up fewer ground balls than Duke.

I did some research earlier this spring, studying the patterns and results of games played between two top-10 opponents, as per the RPI, including the postseason, since 2005. Duke (68.5%), Virginia (65%) and Syracuse (60%) had the best winning percentages against top-ranked foes in the last seven years. They were also the only three teams to average more than 10 goals per game in those contests.

So I would argue the formula for winning games against top-ranked opponents — regular season or postseason — doesn't change. It's simple: To win, you need to be able to out-score your opponents. As Dom Starsia once eloquently told me, flowing sports require scoring.

It's no coincidence that 15 of the last 20 teams to play in the championship game have had a top-8 offense nationally. Only 2012 Maryland, 2011 Maryland, 2010 Notre Dame, 2008 Hopkins and 2007 Hopkins did not.

CENSER: We agree. Unless you have a Gerry Byrne, Scott Rodgers-inspired defense or enough Jesse Bernhardt, Landon Carr-type athletes to create unsettled opportunities and completely tilt the possession war, you have to be able to put up lots of goals to get anywhere in the postseason.

That's why I was always skeptical of all the Chicken Littles that came running out every February screaming PARITY (you know, once they stopped screaming for a shot clock).

Think about it. Scoring lots of goals directly correlates to postseason success. And during most of this century, to generate consistent offense meant having some premier athletes who could always draw a slide. But those types of players — the Powells, the Rabils, the Harrisons, the Bitters, the Crottys — are both very rare and very identifiable in the recruiting process. So that type of talent always ended up on those glory programs that elite high school kids want to play for.

Not surprisingly, those teams then won all the titles.

But as you mentioned before, the growth of the game has made for more unique offensive talent to go around to more schools (Peter Baum meet Colgate). More important — if not subtler — is that coaches started relying less on dodging savants going 1-on-1. From Jamie Munro and Chris Bates transcribing pick-and-roll box offense to the field game, to Villanova running some intricate motion offense, to Steele Stanwick running those two-man games in the championship, creating space is as much about knowing how to use a pick as it is about quick feet or broad shoulders nowadays.

That's what the Bratton dismissal and Virginia revival in 2011 was really about to me. That enlisting explosive midfielders with Mendoza-line shooting percentages to dodge from up top may not have be as an efficient way to play offense.

Then again, maybe the Wahoos could've used Shamel and Rhamel this season. But that's a different story for a different day.

As one Stanwick (Steele) departs the college game, will another (Wells, above) rise to prominence with Johns Hopkins?
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

FORMAN: This might be breaking news: You like Canadians and box lacrosse, Joel? Never would've known.

That Villanova offense was something else. Where would it fit in the lacrosse offense space-time continuum? There were no set plays. Just a circling amoeba that put ball movement at a premium. It made it very difficult for opposing defenses to get a read on what the Wildcats and offensive coordinator Simon Connor were trying to accomplish.

Meanwhile, Denver's Matt Brown might be one of the brightest young minds in the game, running a Canadian box-inspired hybrid offense. Coach Bill Tierney joked that he got tired listening when Brown recited the different sets the Pioneers would use against North Carolina in the NCAA tournament first-round game. Tierney guessed they had 17 different offenses.

This is as good a time as any to ask: What will the post-Steele Stanwick Virginia offense look like? I'm certain Marc Van Arsdale has something up his sleeve. But without the Brattons, without Stanwick, without Colin Briggs... What direction do the Cavaliers go? Is Matt White going to run point?

And since we've mentioned Hopkins: How will the Blue Jays evolve offensively? Chris Boland won't return for his seventh season. Does Wells Stanwick take his spot? Will Hopkins use Virginia as a blueprint for having a Stanwick-quarterbacked, pick-and-popping attack?

CENSER: In regards to Virginia, your guess is as good as mine. Picking up the pieces in the post-Stanwick era is probably as big a task for coach Van Arsdale since having to replace Matt Ward, Kyle Dixon, Matt Poskay and Co. in 2006.

If you're a Wahoo fan looking for the best-case scenario: Nick O'Reilly returns from his yearlong exile and teams up with White to split the quarterbacking duties from X. At the midfield, alley-dodging savants Ryan Tucker and Rob Emery make the leap. Mark Cockerton gets some 2011 Oshawa mojo back.

Like Helen Dragas, you can view the glass as half-empty too. That most of these guys returning were role players who didn't play their best ball in 2012. That all the 'Hoos are in for a rude awakening when Steele's not there to spoon-feed them from behind the cage.

As one Stanwick exits Charlottesville, another one looks to carve out his own piece of quarterbacking history in Baltimore. I do think Wells will be the bellwether for the Blue Jays in 2013. Hopkins hasn't had an attackman who can really go to the goal since Kyle Barrie (Steven Boyle had his moments, too). Last year, Wells wasn't physically there yet. But if he can beat his guy some, distribute the rock, run some two-man pick games with Zach Palmer and play tempo-setter from behind; it will provide much-needed versatility to the Hopkins offense. John Ranagan, John Greeley, Rob Guida and Lee Coppersmith — who shot a combined 21.8 percent in 2012 — can't be the only initiators on the offense at this point.

Check back to LaxMagazine.com on Wednesday and Thursday for Forman v. Censer, Parts II and III.

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