June 27, 2012

Summer Reading Email Exchange: Forman v. Censer Part II

A Duke defense featuring Henry Lobb, coupled with fellow athletic specimens Chris Hipps and Luke Duprey, figures to be one of the nation's best units next season.
© Kevin P. Tucker 

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 II. Click here for Part I, and check back Thursday for Part III.

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

FORMAN: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result? Insanity. Hopkins has to change things up. (In some ways, it might be as simple as shot placement. The selection wasn't bad. It just seemed like shot after shot was fired stick-side high, where the goalie didn't have to move much.)

But you know what? I don't think Bobby Benson got enough credit for adjusting the way the Blue Jays played offense throughout 2012. They were an entirely different offensive team in May than they were in March: Chris Boland in and out of the lineup. John Greeley injury, enter Lee Coppersmith. Wells Stanwick runs through the midfield. More initiating for Zach Palmer.

I'm interested in your thoughts on the Hopkins defense, though. The unit looked so strong early in the year, but then they looked confused and lost later. Jack Reilly jumping between close defense and long-stick middie probably didn't help matters. Is Mike Pellegrino the answer? Does Rob Enright take Gavin Crisafulli's spot at close? Where would you rank Tucker Durkin among the top cover defensemen in the country?

Related: Make a list of your preseason top-5 defenses for 2013.

CENSER: I wonder how much of Hopkins' end-of-year defensive struggles were related to its offense. When your team isn't scoring you play more defense, opposing teams get more comfortable in their sets, and defenders start pressing out and making mistakes. That's what happened against Navy, no?

I bet Jack Reilly bumps to close defense full-time and they give the long-stick reins to Pellegrino. First, it would give the Jays the best 1-2 cover combo in the country with Reilly and Durkin. Second, as good an athlete and as much ground as Reilly can cover, teams need natural long-stick middies with superior stick skills who can patrol between the stripes (see Ratliff, Scott). Pellegrino, who looked fantastic at the end of the season, fits the bill. Whether he can be Matt Bocklet circa 2007? The jury's out.

Durkin may not be the most complete defensemen in the country — I'm always a bit partial to the guys with the slick, Glatzel-like sticks — but Durkin, the Tom Garvey clone, is the best 1-on-1 cover guy in the country. His style of defense reminds me of that Michael Lewis piece about Shane Battier a few years ago. Like Battier, Durkin does his best work with his brain (the cross and slap checks help), forcing guys to go places on the field where they just aren't all that comfortable.

The best defensive units in my mind:

1. Loyola — Until an offense shows they can dodge Josh Hawkins, stick with Ratliff in transition or run by Joe Fletcher, the Hounds stay at No. 1.

2. Duke — Chris Hipps, Luke Duprey and Henry Lobb are rangy clones who can get after ball carriers.

3. Maryland — Return everyone. Jesse Bernhardt and Landon Carr will duke it out with "Hawk" and Rat for long-stick middie and short-stick d-middie supremacy.

4. Lehigh — Defenseman Ty Souders and goalie Matt Poillon are bonafide.

5. Johns Hopkins

Quick tangent: Presuming Casey Carroll is granted a fifth season of eligibility and Will Haus stays on the defensive end... It's easy to wonder whether there's ever be a longer, more athletic, more imposing defense than Duke in 2013? Don't forget Harvard transfer Daniel DiMaria, who at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds may be the runt of the litter.

FORMAN: Wait, wait, wait. Notre Dame doesn't rank in your top-5 defenses? Knowing you, that wasn't an oversight. This was intentional.

Let's take a look at the Fighting Irish scoring defense stats for the last six seasons, since defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne returned for his second stint in South Bend.

Imagine for a second that there's some parallel universe where CJ Costabile misses that shot in overtime two years ago, or Steele Stanwick never brings Virginia back in that 2011 first-round game against Bucknell, or Denver got some calls to go there way in this year's quarterfinals against Loyola.

Season: Goals Against Average (National Rank)
2012: 6.31 (1st)
2011: 6.57 (2nd)
2010: 7.53 (2nd)
2009: 6.19 (1st)
2008: 7.06 (5th)
2007: 6.67 (4th)

Summary: Notre Dame has finished either first or second nationally for the last four seasons.

Without hearing your argument, there's no legitimate justification for Notre Dame outside the top-5. (This, by the way, is why social media guru Gerry Byrne says the Fighting Irish have a chip on their shoulder, and has created the faux "TewaaraNOT Award."

For me, Byrne's bunch would be No. 1. Even if they're losing first-team All-American defenseman Kevin Randall and honorable mention All-American long-stick midfielder Bobby Smith. Notre Dame still returns Stephen O'Hara and Matt Miller at close, shorties Jack Near and Quinn Cully, plus reserve longstick Tyler Anderson. And, oh by the way, first-team All-American goalie John Kemp is back between the pipes.

(It's somewhat remarkable, by the way, that only nine players are listed as defensemen on Notre Dame's roster. Byrne and coach Kevin Corrigan find the guys they believe in: blue-collar players who buy into the system, willing to acknowledge off-ball posture is more important than takeaway checks.)

One interesting observation: We said earlier you need to score to win. I'm not going back on my word, but it's funny that your top-5 defensive units — make it six if we include Notre Dame — nearly mirror my preseason top-15 team rankings.

OK, now that we've gotten that out of the way, back to your other points — most of which I agree with, especially that Duke's defense could be scary good with their length and athleticism. How significant of an impact will Chris Gabrielli's departure have?

But while we're talking about Duke: How much more can we expect from the now-all-junior attack, featuring Jordan Wolf, Christian Walsh and Josh Dionne? Coach John Danowski mentioned several times this year how he wanted the trio to be "lacrosse players," while mentioning their collective lacrosse IQ. Is there something more to that notion?

CENSER: Yeah, I have tons of respect for Gerry Byrne and that sharpened buzzsaw in South Bend.

But what defense are you possibly taking off my list? Every one of those units bring back basically everything from 2012 (and in some cases add a couple unique pieces — think Duke with DiMaria and Carroll, or Hopkins with Phil Castranova). So it's less about Notre Dame's defense and more about the quality and depth of talent returning next year.

You make an interesting point about all of next year's pre-season favorites being teams with the "best" defenses. Imagine for a second that there's some parallel universe where CJ Costabile misses that shot in overtime two years ago, or Steele Stanwick never brings Virginia back in that 2011 first-round game against Bucknell, or Denver got some calls to go there way in this year's quarterfinals against Loyola.

In that alternate reality, Notre Dame ends up winning the title in 2010, and Maryland likely grits out championships in 2011 and 2012. And the narrative entirely changes. Lax talking heads like us would be spitting/emailing a whole lot less about parity and scoring goals, and a lot more about how defense and quality goaltending brings home hardware.

I'm not sure about Gabrielli. You spent a lot of time hanging around the coaches' office in Durham, what'd you think?

That attack group at Duke is a fascinating case study though. Besides Dionne, who seems to always be within sniffing distance of a pipe, do Wolf and Walsh have defined roles? Do the coaches want Wolf to be the quarterback from behind and he's just not as developed a passer to run the entire offense through him?

On that final point... Do you think lax IQ can be developed? Or is it something you're born with? Is Wolf's style of play the result of where he played his high school ball? At Lower Merion — rather than say the Haverford School or Malvern Prep — he carried the dodging load. But did he learn the intricacies of draw-and-dump lacrosse?

Notre Dame loses first-team All-American Kevin Randall, but Matt Forman believes that Notre Dame will return another top-flight defense.
© TD Paulius

FORMAN: For the aforementioned points about Johns Hopkins' defense looking lost and confused at times, I would drop the Blue Jays out of the top-5 units list. Castranova will make a big difference, if he's healthy, and I liked what I saw from Pellegrino, should he be inserted into the starting long-stick middie spot. But I didn't see enough to make them a top-flight group.

Think my 2013 top-5 would look something like this:

1. Notre Dame

2. Loyola

3. Maryland

4. Duke

5. Lehigh

Honorable mentions: Hopkins, Ohio State, Penn State and Navy.

Love changing the narrative, or flipping the script. I've been as vocal as the next guy about pace of play, scoring and related topics. But I did some research to determine the success of the nation's top scoring defense in games played against top-10 teams, as determined the season-end RPI. Here's what I found...

Year: Team, GAA, Record Against RPI Top-10
2012: Notre Dame, 6.75, 2-2
2011: Notre Dame, 8.60, 2-3
2010: Syracuse, 7.00, 3-1
2009: Notre Dame: 8.00, 2-0
2008: Duke, 7.90, 7-1
2007: Johns Hopkins, 8.22, 5-4
2006: Princeton, 7.00, 1-5
2005: Johns Hopkins, 7.40, 5-3
TOTAL RECORD: 27-20 (57.44 percent)

Make of those findings what you will.

I was really impressed with Gabrielli during my week in Durham. The guy can flat out coach defense, breaking down X's and O's and communicating them effectively, and he's got the perfect personality to be a head coach — the right mix of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism, while being well respected. Gabrielli was featured prominently in Episode Two of Lacrosse Magazine's "The Big Game" series, in which he spoke about and described Duke's defensive game plan — and the challenges of containing reigning Tewaaraton winner Steele Stanwick — ahead of an April 13 win at Virginia. If you haven't seen it, make sure to check it out.

Duke certainly has all the talent in place for the next coordinator, and who wouldn't want to work under John Danowski? But I don't think coaches like Gabrielli can be easily replaced. I will say this: Maybe Ron Caputo could bump down to the defensive side, and Danowski could convince his son Matt to take the reins of the offense? Now that'd be interesting. Or does Danowski have enough confidence in John Galloway, a volunteer assistant at Duke last season, to give him a more prominent role coaching the defense?

Wolf, Walsh and Dionne spent a good portion of the season trying to find their roles within the offense, and at times, it seemed like they were deferring to one another instead of just taking over and making something happen. That's where Danowski, I think, was trying to get more out of his sophomore stars. Who runs the offense is inconsequential, but the Blue Devils didn't have that clearly defined feeder-finisher dynamic of years past. It would make most sense to me to have Wolf running point.

I do think lacrosse IQ can be taught and developed, and it's not entirely innate. But Danowski mentioned to me several times about the club ball culture, and how playing so many games doesn't always lend itself to playing smart lacrosse, focusing on team instead of individual concepts. That might be part of what's afflicting Duke's offense. What do you think?

And let's do this exercise again: Name your preseason top-5 offenses for 2013.

Check back to LaxMagazine.com on Thursday for Forman v. Censer, Part III. Part I appeared Tuesday.

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