March 28, 2013

UnCensered: It's Time for Midseason Questions

by Joel Censer | | Twitter | Censer Archive

Josh Hawkins has returned from suspension, but defending champion Loyola is still not at full strength while dealing with injuries. Will the real Greyhounds please stand up?
© Scott McCall

Here we are, almost two months since that ridiculous Feb. 2 High Point-Delaware game and close to two months from when some team will be putting on hats and cutting down nylons on Memorial Day in Philadelphia.

From what I've gathered, I don't think anyone has a clue to how the rest of the season is going to shake out.

Sure, there are some constants. Duke has started slow. Notre Dame has defended well. Rob Pannell, despite sporting a beard that could have slowed him down, has scored lots and lots of points.

But no team has really separated itself from the pack. Instead, there are a few groups that are probably a step or two ahead, and many more who are, at this point, just a potential postseason monkey wrench. There are no unbeatens for a reason. Talent is dispersed, and every outfit has its flaws.

In many ways, the season's midpoint has become a time of reflection -- when reporters, bloggers and anyone else associated with the lacrosse pundit class make blanket statements and hand out awards. Why pretend like I have any of these answers? I just have questions. Lots of 'em. Here are eight pertinent ones.

1. Can Maryland's offense score enough goals in May?

I set off the warning bells a couple weeks ago, writing that I wasn't ready to crown the Terrapins just yet. Maryland is more methodical than explosive on offense, and probably relies too much on its first midfield.

It showed last Saturday, when the Terrapins had trouble going a goal-for-goal with a North Carolina team that had the personnel to dodge the Maryland defense and was winning faceoffs, double-poling the Maryland midfield and being opportunistic in the unsettled. Not to mention, because Carolina faceoff man R.G. Keenan is good at winning the ball to himself and the Heels generally initiate through their attack, Maryland's dominant long-stick midfielder Jesse Bernhardt was mostly a non-factor.

2. What does the real Loyola look like?

Not since ESPNU broadcast a preseason scrimmage between Loyola and Team USA in January have we seen the Greyhounds at full strength. Whether that has been the result of suspensions (Josh Hawkins) or injuries (Mike Sawyer and Davis Butts to name two), last year's reigning champions have mostly had to make do.

It hasn't been all bad news though. Hawkins' sideline exile gave fellow defensive midfielder Pat Laconi time to shine between the stripes, while Sawyer's absence opened the door for freshman Zach Herreweyers, a slick southpaw from Canada who can fill it up in a hurry.

3. Can a Notre Dame team finally win a championship?

"Defense wins championships." In the world of coachspeak, it's a staple stock quote. The problem? In college lacrosse, it's patently false. Over the last eight years, the one constant of championship teams, save the 2007 Johns Hopkins team with Paul Rabil, is they have had a top-eight scoring offense.

Of course, Notre Dame was the team closest to flipping the script when in 2011 they rode a Gerry Byrne- and Scott Rodgers-led defense all the way to overtime of the national championship game. Then CJ Costabile happened.

This year, Notre Dame has played its typical brand of stingy, man-to-man defense. But it looks like the Irish also have more offense, at least on paper, to complement all that backline efficiency. Junior Jim Marlatt is a prime-time, rugged overhand shooting presence from the midfield. When it's all said and done, Matt Kavanagh may have a claim to being the best off-ball American attackman ever.

My worry about the Irish? In fluid sports (and I can't even begin to tell you why), goal differential is almost always a key indicator of whether a team has the chops to win a title. All these one-goal wins, including a 7-6 barnburner on Sunday against Rutgers, have to be disconcerting.

4. How innovative are offenses going to get with all these picks?

Remember when an alley dodge or an invert was the way every single team initiated offense? I know, it feels like years since everyone, including me, thought the Virginia offense was dead in the water without the Brattons.

In 2013, every offense seems to rely on picks, slips, screens, general two-man action and creating space in ways that go beyond clearing out room for a dodger.

Dylan Levings' faceoff prowess can keep the Bulldogs in any game and help Yale keep pace in the competitive Ivy League race.
© Lee Weissman

5. What implications does this new type of offense have on the game?

It's the trend no one's talking about. But I think all the screens, misdirections, etc., are changing the game and increasing parity. Consider this: There are only a few players who can consistently run by a long pole or today's short-stick d-middies. So if every offense is predicated around a guy having to beat his defender, the teams with access to elite athletes are going to have a huge advantage. To me, it's the primary explanation why only five programs won championships from 1992 to 2012.

But innovative coaches have finally figured out that lots of movement, some obstruction and maybe a hint of Canadian moxie can make up for a lack of dodgers or a well-organized, athletic defensive unit. Ask Denver.

6. Who comes out of the dog-eat-dog Ivy League?

Coaching at an Ivy League institution has to be one of the hardest jobs in Division I lacrosse. I'm serious. How does a program get a leg up when every team in a conference is well coached and has something to sell recruits? It's just a brutal environment.

Nevertheless, Cornell has to be considered the favorite as any Ivy League title likely goes through Pannell's Z-dodging routine. Penn and Princeton are probably a year away. Yale... Well, speaking of Yale...

7. How many teams could potentially make postseason noise?

Perusing the USILA coaches' poll, I could see almost all of the teams in the top 20 winning a contest in May. Even fringe teams like the Elis and Albany present unique challenges and could beat those 1-5 teams in a must-win game.

With Dylan Levings at the faceoff dot, Yale will always have access to extra possessions. The Bulldogs are tough on the ground and at the defensive end with elite talent like senior defenseman Peter Johnson and short-stick defensive midfielder Harry Kucharczyk. While they may not have the same skill guys on offense as they did in 2012, lead dog Brandon Mangan and crafty Canadian Kirby Zdrill can usually score enough during the Eli grind-a-thon.

If Albany makes the postseason, the Great Danes will be another game-planning nightmare. For all of their defensive deficiencies, when Lyle, Miles and Ty Thompson play catch, there are going to be offensive fireworks involved.

8. What's the best defense to stop Rob Pannell?

A common defensive strategy for teams having to contain an elite quarterback such as Ned Crotty or Steele Stanwick is to enlist your best cover man to stay on the attackman's hands while being slow to slide. The reasoning is simple enough. Yeah, Stanwick or Crotty might get a couple dodging for their own. But the alternative, in this case getting the rest of the team involved, seems far worse.

At first thought, I wondered if that could be the best defensive tactic to deal with Pannell. But while Stanwick was at heart more of a feeder than scorer, Pannell is a bulldog with a Big Red chip on his shoulder. I mean, this is same guy who embraces the Red Mamba moniker and being compared to Kobe Bryant. I don't think he'd have much of a problem scoring eight or nine goals if that's what the defense gave him. Good luck, defensive coordinators!

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