April 4, 2013

UnCensered: A Few of My Favorite Things

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Censer Archive

North Carolina freshman Evan Connell brings a needed toughness to a Tar Heels team that has vaulted itself into the contender conversation.
© Cecil Copeland

Last Saturday I didn't have to work or blog any lacrosse games. After setting my DVR, I thought I would spend the day doing whatever you're supposed to do when it's the first weekend in spring and you're in your twenties. A couple recordable college lacrosse games? Those could wait.

Sometime around 9 p.m., though, after watching Duke survive the Crimson scare, I realized I had spent most of the day glued to my couch. What was supposed to be a peek at the Johns Hopkins-North Carolina score had turned into a nine-hour stick-and-ball marathon.

The Blue Jays venturing down Tobacco Road? The Terps' semi-annual pilgrimage to Charlottesville? The Dookies at Hahvahd? I watched it all.

Last year I probably would have taken a cold shower afterwards and wondered how Eamon, Quint and the rest of the ESPNU/NBC Sports Network folks had coerced me into a day's worth of ho-hum inverts and minute-long standoffs behind the goal.

But the back-and-forth bloodspat between North Carolina and Johns Hopkins — two teams who clearly don't like each other very much — may have been the best game of the season. Maryland, meanwhile, flexed its transition bonafides and then survived a dramatic, end-of-game flurry from the Wahoos. In Cambridge, Harvard played methodical and smart — it is Harvard after all — but ultimately couldn't handle the Brendan Fowler, Will Haus, Luke Duprey middle-of-the-field buzzsaw.

Here are some of my favorite things from an action-packed weekend:

North Carolina's pick-friendly offense

It's no secret what makes Carolina's settled offense tick. In an era when most attackmen need at the very least a pick to get by their defenseman, the Heels have two (two!) lightening-quick lefties in Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter who can gain a step simply by moving their heads. Moreover, Marcus Holman is the nation's premier fill-in-the-blanks, glue guy. The senior captain can operate in tight, bomb from the outside, find the open man, play the two-man game, take advantage of short sticks and is the perfect, Tewaaraton caliber muse for his two jitterbug linemates.

But North Carolina offensive coordinator Pat Myers also deserves a lot of credit as the Heels do innovative stuff on offense that goes beyond just giving the ball to one of the Rugrats and getting out of the way. My favorite offensive wrinkle? When Sankey and Bitter dodge, a teammate sets a pick for them at goal-line extended.

I'm not in Myers's brain or in the North Carolina huddle, but my guess is that the pick is set there for a couple of reasons. If the defenders switch, Sankey and Bitter have a better matchup while driving to five-and-five. If the defenders don't switch, there is ample interference for them to get to where they want on the field. If the two defenders try to double the ball quickly, Sankey or Bitter will have enough time and space at that part of the field to run away from the pressure and find the open guy.

Connell, McBride are UNC's underrated guys

North Carolina hasn't lacked an explosive offense or a variety of full-field weapons the last few seasons. But the truth is the Heels haven't had either the defense or requisite toughness when the ball is on the deck to make it to Memorial Day weekend.

But in a wins over Maryland, Brown, and Johns Hopkins last week we saw more backbone from North Carolina. Yet, Evan Connell and Greg McBride, the two most-aggressive of the outfit, will have to continue to provide the between-the-lines muscle should the Tar Heels expect to survive the postseason gauntlet.

A Calvert Hall (Md.) product and freshman long-stick, Connell can play behind, on the wing or up top. The no-frills lefty is skilled and slick on the ground but is also more than happy to throw his body around and get his hands a little dirty. In many ways, he resembles Cornell All-American defenseman Jason Noble.

Although Ryan Creighton gets much of the pub, and for good reason, for his offense-to-defense midfield conversion, McBride is a former blue-chip offensive recruit who has also embraced the other side of the field. Another Baltimore native and MIAA product, McBride can match up with anyone, is a warrior between the 30s and a load in transition.

There's a line between playing hard and being too aggressive. Both Connell and McBride have definitely crossed it before. Connell has already spent five-plus minutes in the penalty box, leading the team in that category, and was jawing with former high school teammate Ryan Brown for much of the Johns Hopkins game. McBride is similarly pesky and chirpy and, for better or worse, is best known for last year's end-of-game Maryland fiasco.

But let's be honest: this Tar Heel outfit was rated 38th in 2012 and 31st in 2011 in Tempo Free Lax's adjusted defensive efficiency. Personally, I think Connell and McBride's edge and willingness to walk that tightrope are crucial for a Carolina squad that has vaulted itself into the contender conversation.

Johns Hopkins' senior class

Full disclosure: I don't root for any team in college lacrosse. When you cover a subject, you become somewhat numb to it.

But there I was on Saturday cheering on the Blue Jay seniors. After R.G. Keenan's pinch, pop and goal ripped the hearts out of the Homewood faithful, I felt Columbia blue, too.

Since the moment those Hopkins seniors stepped on campus, their games and subsequent limitations have been put under a microscope: John Ranagan and John Greeley's shooting issues; Zach Palmer's initiating issues; the list goes on.

So it was hard not to root for those guys as Hopkins exchanged body blows and begin to put things all together against a resurgent North Carolina. Lee Coppersmith was at times the best player on the field. Palmer looked both Canadian and confident as he got to his strong hand and played with north-of-the-border moxie. Chris Lightener finally seemed healthy. When Greeley, who has never met a pass he didn't like, kept it on the flip (love the Ranagan fake shot) and found net to put the Jays up a goal with 4:30 left, I might as well have jumped out of my seat.

I don't know what's in store for the mercurial Jays the rest of the way. But I do think if they continue to play like they did on Saturday that every one of us media types will be writing a story in May about the seniors finally breaking through the quarterfinal jinx.

Jesse Bernhardt's dominance

Against Virginia, Jesse Bernhardt didn't pick up a ground ball or cause a turnover but scored twice when the Cavaliers didn't pick him up on the odd-man rush.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Watching Maryland take down Virginia was a quick reminder that Jesse Bernhardt is the heart and soul of this Terps' team.

For all the talk (guilty as charged) about Maryland "running with the new rules," the truth is that this 2013 team is winning the same way they have the last few years: by dominating the possession war, methodically grinding in the half-field and picking their spots in transition. Tempo Free Lax confirms the eye test. The Terps are first in possession percentage, fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency, eight in adjusted defensive efficiency and 45th in pace.

Against Virginia, Bernhardt didn't pick up a ground ball or cause a turnover although it was entertaining to watch the lengths to which different Wahoos would go to avoid him as they crossed midfield. But in a game where Maryland struggled to generate offense, the senior long-stick was the difference as he ran downhill and converted twice when Virginia didn't pick him up on the odd-man rush.

Virginia needs boost, Cockerton still shining

Collegecrosse.com's Matt Glaude wrote a fascinating piece about Virginia on Wednesday in which he pointed out that the 'Hoos have been competitive not because they are particularly efficient on offense but because they don't turn the ball over. He called it, and I'm paraphrasing here, relying on volume of possessions without a turnover to score goals.

Moreover, Glaude pointed out, the 'Hoos ball-control offense has insulated them from the problems they have had at the defensive end of the field.

But in my mind, the stats also reveal the primary issue with the 2013 Wahoos. Quint mentioned it some during the Maryland-Virginia broadcast, but on offense none of the Cavaliers are dodging to the middle of the field or to those spots where shooting angles begin to improve exponentially. It's all alley dodge, probe from X and then redirect it for another alley dodge.

This is Virginia! The Cavs talked all preseason about attacking from any and everywhere, and never having a timer-on call, which they've been earning in bunches. When you consider the Wahoo offense, you think star power at attack and horses at midfield, playmakers like Kyle Dixon, Matt Ward, John Christmas, Jay Jalbert and countless others who could either get by defenders with quick feet or broad shoulders.

So I guess what I'm saying in a roundabout way is that while Virginia's ability to protect the pill while poking and prodding may be holding things together, it's also a symptom for what's wrong. After all, Virginia is 5-5 and clearly on the outside when it comes to an NCAA tourney bid. So it really has nothing to lose when it comes to becoming a bit more aggressive. If that leads to a few more turnovers then so be it.

Quick note: I mentioned Mark Cockerton in a column a few weeks ago, but just want to tip my hat to Virginia attackman again. Last Saturday, the whole stadium — from the Terrapin defenders, to the guys in the booth, to the hot dog vendors — knew he wanted his left hand. In addition, star Maryland defenseman Michael Ehrhardt had close to eight inches and 40 pounds on Cockerton. But Cockerton still got to spots and scored a couple. The slick Canuck is tough-as-nails and has a nose for the goal. It's hard not to appreciate that.

The tale of two Luke Dupreys

Washington Post and Inside Lacrosse writer Christian Swezey recounted to me how a decade ago, then Georgetown defensive coordinator Matt Rienzo would yell "Cinch Seven" off restarts, or when an opponent crossed into the offensive zone. The call told every defender to lock their man off while Hoya long-stick Kyle Sweeney, who wore number 7, would go one-on-one with the ball carrier. From the press box, Swezey would usually count to five before Sweeney had stripped some helpless defensive midfielder and the Hoyas were out in transition.

Anyway, it's been sometime since Brodie Merrill and Sweeney were ding-donging on the Hilltop. And much to the chagrin of nostalgic old-timers who talk about a time when the ball could actually be dislodged from sticks, there haven't been many "Cinch Seven" types in college lacrosse.

But this season, Duke long pole Luke Duprey, who had six grounders and three caused turnovers against Harvard, has been a terrifying force of nature between the 30s. If he gets close to a midfielder, he's usually dislodging the ball. Duprey does it with less finesse than the surgical-like Sweeney. Similar to former Virginia long-stick Mike Timms, Duprey is just so darn long that ball carriers can't really escape his trail check. NBC Sports Network color guy and LaxMagazine.com columnist Evan Washburn aptly compared him to a praying mantis.

If I had to be critical, I'd say Duprey had a couple fouls and was responsible for a few goals when he overreached on Harvard midfielders in settled situations. He just has to realize that guarding a guy 20 yards from the goal is different than playing someone 50 yards away.

Harvard's tough luck

Honestly, I felt for Harvard. Even without the services of Daniel Eipp, out for the season with a knee injury, the Crimson outplayed the Dookies in settled situations. Converted attackman Peter Schwartz took advantage of dodging a short stick. Lefty Alex White could play for anyone. Murphy Vandervelde was a catch-and-release savant, using his quick-trigger finger to convert on three extra man tallies. Defenseman Joe Petrucci beat Jordan Wolf to the end line on multiple occasions to give possession back to Harvard. At the end of the day, though, it's really hard to keep up when one opponent wins 18 of 26 faceoffs and clears better than 85 percent.

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