January 23, 2013

#LMranks: No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels (Men)

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Team Page/Schedule

Ryan Creighton has moved from first-line offensive midfield to the defensive midfield as UNC looks to strengthen its backline and take advantage of the new rules for the 2013 season.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Lacrosse Magazine is counting down its preseason rankings throughout the month of January exclusively on LaxMagazine.com.

Today continues a look at our NCAA Division I Top 20 rankings. For more, visit LaxMagazine.com/LMranks. Follow @LacrosseMag on Twitter and Tweet using the hashtag #LMranks. The countdown will resume Thursday with profiles of the seventh-ranked teams in NCAA Division I men and women.

Power Ratings

Offense: 5*
Defense: 2
Goalkeeping: 3
Faceoff: 5
*Out of 5

Top Returner

A Marcus Holman (Sr.)
A versatile threat, Holman can dodge a pole, find the open man, step in from 12 yards or work on the interior. He's also a fearless competitor. "If he's talked about as a player of the year candidate, he deserves it," North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. "But at the end of the day, Marcus wants to win." Holman scored 39 goals with 35 assists a year ago.


M Chad Tutton (So.)
The rugged 6-foot-2, 190-pound Canadian slinger scored a staggering 26 points as a freshman despite drawing the long-pole. "He's one of those really exciting kids to coach because he doesn't think about a whole lot of things," Breschi said. "He just loves the game and plays hard."

What's New?

There's a stable full of game-ready freshmen in Chapel Hill. Steve Pontrello is slated to run on the first line midfield. Evan Connell could start at defense. Offensive midfielders Brent Armstrong, Jake Matthei and Spencer Parks, along with defensive midfielder Brian Sherlock also are expected to compete for minutes.

What's Not?

The starting attack is back. North Carolina began last season trying a number of different combinations before ultimately settling on Holman, Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter. Nicky Galasso, the 2011 ACC Rookie of the Year, transferred to Syracuse in October. "We're preparing for a lot of looks from defenses and everyone's best shot," Holman said.

2012 Recap

Record: 11-6 (1-2 ACC)

In a Nutshell: Tabbed the "Miami Heat of lacrosse" at the beginning of 2012, North Carolina struggled to find the right combinations and carve out roles with all the talent coalescing at the attack. Eventually, the lineup was solidified with the Heels using a younger, quicker attack group. Behind Marcus Holman's offensive handiwork and R.G. Keenan grinding it out on faceoffs, North Carolina had huge mid-season wins against Maryland, Hopkins and Virginia. Still, their lack of defensive chops caught up to them against Denver in the first round of the NCAA tournament, when they were spit out by Chase Carraro and a few slick-sticked Canadians. "It was a little tough early in the season last year. We brought in Jack McBride, Davey Emala and Nicky [Galasso] was still coming off his foot injury. But we figured things out." Holman said. "At the end of the day, we just said the best players are going to play. If you're a freshman and you're clearly better than an upperclassman, you deserve to get the nod."

High Point: An April 20 win over Virginia. The Tar Heels knocked the 800-pound Wahoo off its back, beating Virginia, 11-9, in Charlottesville in the first round of the ACC tournament. It was Carolina's first win against the Cavaliers since 2004. Sankey and Holman combined for nine points.

Low Point: A March 6 loss to Penn. A methodical Quakers team jumped to an early lead and never let up, as the Tar Heels were taken down on Franklin Field in a 10-6 upset. Carolina's six-goal output marked a season low and was part of a four-game stretch in which they failed to break double-digits.

2013 Preview

#LMranks MD1 Preseason Countdown

No. 20 Bryant
No. 19 Hofstra
No. 18 Fairfield
No. 17 Villanova
No. 16 Yale
No. 15 Princeton
No. 14 Penn State
No. 13 UMass
No. 12 Syracuse

No. 11 Colgate
Monday: No. 10 Lehigh
Tuesday: No. 9 Virginia
No. 8 North Carolina
No. 7
No. 6

More: Countdown schedule | WD1 | MD2 | WD2 | MD3 | WD3 | JuCo | MCLA | WCLA

Best Case: Holman and the jitterbugs light up the scoreboard. Keenan dominates the face-off X. McDonald, Ryan Creighton, now playing defensive midfield, and redshirt senior goalie Steven Rastivo form a stingy backline that brings the Tar Heels to the final four for the first time since 1993.

Worst Case: Teams are more prepared for Sankey and Bitter's stop-and-go routine from behind the cage. Neither Rastivo nor redshirt sophomore goalie Andrew O'Connell establish themselves in net. The freshmen midfielders lose steam midway through the season. The defense continues to have trouble making stops and picking up loose balls. The Heels make another early first round exit in the NCAA tournament.

Inside Scoop

Coach Joe Breschi's comments on...

A Joey Sankey (So.) and A Jimmy Bitter (So.)
"Skill-wise, they are very similar. They both have very good vision. They both can dodge. They both have to continue to work on their right hand. They both have range, which is unique to our attack. [Our attack] can all shoot from 12 yards as opposed to just having a finisher and two guys that can unload. That helps us too. [Sankey and Bitter] don't have to be inside of five yards to score, although they get there at times. With their hands free, they both can let it loose. They're both quick — if you want talk about change of direction. The difference is just Bitter is 5-foot-9 and Sankey is 5-foot-5."

FO R.G. Keenan (Jr.)
"During the offseason, he got his meniscus cut. He's good now and back to working out. He'll be back at 100 percent. Some look at facing off differently: Does it have that much of an impact or not? Anytime you start with the ball, as we've seen in a lot of games that we've played and won, you're off to a great start. And vice versa. If you struggle at the X, then it's tough to make a stop and then get the ball to the offensive end. R.G.'s been terrific for two years and we expect the same from him in his junior year. Certainly, a first-team All-American returning guy. We're proud of how hard he plays and how hard he works. He gives our team a great chance in dominating the X.

"R.G.'s a standup young man. He gives Chase Carraro [who won 22-of-30 faceoffs in Denver's playoff win over Carolina] all the credit in the world for having a great game against him. He was disappointed in his own effort. R.G. is not a guy you need to coddle. He's tough. He's a grinder. He'll get out there this year and attack things like he always has with a great work ethic and a means to dominate. That's what makes him special. He's able to put things behind him but not without learning from them first. Again, that's part of the chip he carries too."

M Ryan Creighton (Jr.)
"We moved him to defensive midfield. That's where he was to start the year last year, until he ended up on our first midfield line. Obviously, he can play wherever. That adds some depth to what we do. It seems now to be a much faster game, and with no horns the transition game is going be key. We wanted to be sure to put some our best players at the defensive end of the field so we could really take advantage of those quick whistle opportunities and transition. [Creighton's] such a great leader. He understands the game. He's obviously got terrific IQ and leadership abilities at the defensive end. He and Kieran McDonald have taken over the role as leaders at the defense, which has really helped us out. We have lacked that leadership down at that end and that's been one of our focuses.

"Putting a guy like Creighton down there, who is going to be on the field 90 percent of the defensive possessions, is huge. Especially with a lot of teams attacking short sticks. You see all the great short-stick defensive middies out there who have had success the last couple of years. Guys like [Josh] Hawkins over at Loyola. If you don't have to slide to your short sticks, it helps your whole defense. But it's [Creighton's] leadership that stands above the rest."

Rival Coaches Say

"Getting older and much more experienced now. Tons of talent. Elite faceoff man. A wealth of talent on the offensive end. Led by one of the nations best players, Marcus Homan. They should be able to score a ton of goals, but they need to find a way to sure up their defense... Maybe losing McBride, Galasso, Dunster, and Wood is addition by subtraction, now there are not so many "stars" that have to mix in and get their touches with Holman, Bitter, and Sankey... Offensive midfield depth could be an issue with some unproven guys there other than Emala... Obviously Keenan is one of the country's best, but this team's main issue has to be defense and in the goal. It has been and right now seems to continue to be a major thorn in this team's side...

"This attack unit will cause many defensive coordinators to spend many late nights in the office... Is this the year the Tar Heels finally break through and join the final four party? I am saying yes, as they have two specialty areas nailed down between Keenan and another year with Rastivo in the goal. Talent continues to be abundant on the offensive end with the best attackman in the ACC this year: Marcus Holman returning. Sankey and the younger Bitter are back as well. Only at UNC could a team lose a Galasso type player and not skip a beat. Midfielders Tutton and Emala are powerful forces to contend with. The biggest question mark is on the defensive end of the field, where Staines and McComas have graduated and left vacancies in a unit that was already not great last year."

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