April 26, 2013

UnCensered: Previewing a Tasty Menu of Weekend Matchups

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

Saturday's matchup between Johns Hopkins and Loyola could be a virtual playoff elimination game for both teams. The battle between the lines will be fierce, including Michael Pellegrino (above), John Ranagan and Phil Castronova against Loyola's midfield threats.
© Lee Weissman

I take a week off from college lacrosse and the sky continues to fall. A Denver team that looked like they had defined "offensive efficiency" gets edged by ECAC foe Fairfield. A Syracuse outfit that played too close to the fire for too long (five straight one-goal games) finally got burnt in a loss to upstate rival Hobart. Without the services of phenoms Miles and Lyle Thompson, Albany got clipped by cross-town rival Siena. All across Division I men's lacrosse, parity continued to rear its head and little tears could be seen coming from the various bracketologists' eyes.

At some point this season — it's hard to remember exactly when considering Johns Hopkins started its season in early February — Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala discussed how there's a lot of lacrosse left. Obviously, anyone with a calendar could see that. But he was getting at something deeper: getting too worked up over wins and losses in this era is useless.

Things don't happen because some pundit or an UnCensered column says it will. They happen when they happen and often at the most unexpected of times. I could count on one hand the number of people who could have predicted Virginia rising from the ashes in 2011 or who actually thought Loyola was legit last season.

But if there's a week when rubber really begins to meets road, when teams that could throw a wrench in the postseason either play themselves in or out of the playoff contention, it's this week. Personally, I don't mind if my team is playing with its back to the wall. In the postseason, you're not going to be matched up with cupcakes and every game is do-or-die. If a squad doesn't have the chops to get through the regular season gauntlet, they aren't going to have the chops in May either. So why not start the weeding out process now? At least they'll have some free time during finals.

So in a week full of intrigue here are the most intriguing of matchups.

No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Duke, 7:30 p.m. Friday in Chapel Hill, ACC Tournament

Jordan Wolf vs. the North Carolina defense

When I think back to Duke's 11-8 win over North Carolina in mid-March, what I remember most was how quickly the Tar Heels retreated into a zone. In some ways, it made sense. I don't think Carolina felt like they had an individual defenseman who could matchup with Duke's superstar, the Ankle-Breaker-in-Chief Jordan Wolf. But in other ways it hurt the Heels. I think this UNC outfit is at its best when it is getting up and down the field in a hurry, causing havoc between the stripes and letting it fly in transition. With Brandon Fowler dominating the faceoff dot, going 17-for- 23, and the Heels in a zone, Duke completely controlled the pace of that game.

Neither of these red-hot blood rivals has lost since the day in Chapel Hill. I'm genuinely interested and curious to see how the Heels cover Wolf. My guess is that they hope R.G. Keenan wins a few more faceoffs and they throw a healthy mix of zone and man at the Blue Devil offense. When they are in man-to-man look for pesky freshman Evan Connell to draw the matchup.

No. 7 Loyola at No. 11 Johns Hopkins, 2 p.m. Saturday

Johns Hopkins' middie of the field guys vs. Loyola's possession warriors

Do-or-die (or is it?) for the Blue Jays.

Is there anything more terrifying than Loyola's rope unit? Last Saturday against a pesky Hobart team, long-stick Scott Ratliff and defensive midfielders Josh Hawkins and Pat Laconi ran roughshod, combining for four goals, one assist, 14 ground balls and six caused turnovers. Yikes.

For Hopkins the real question is can it stop Loyola's early offense while still not completely surrendering their own transition opportunities? With John Ranagan, Phil Castronova and Michael Pellegrino the Jays have the athletes to compete head-to-head. But for me, the concern is more when their offensive-oriented guys get caught running from offense to defense. Against Albany, most of the Great Danes' goals occurred during some unsettled situation. But when they faced the Terps a week later, the Jays had cleaned it up.

No. 6 Cornell vs. No. 12 Princeton, 4 p.m. Saturday at East Rutherford, N.J., Big City Classic

Princeton defense vs. Rob Pannell

The game may be played in the Meadowlands at the Big City Classic, but it will seem more like a South Carolina road-stand with all the offensive fireworks. We know both these teams can put up a lot of goals in a hurry. Princeton is currently ranked third in adjusted offensive efficiency, Cornell sixth. North Carolina notwithstanding, I'd argue these two teams have more individual offensive talent than any other group in the country.

So the question is which squad can make the requisite number of stops?

The Big Red are statistically better and have a group of established defenders ready to do battle with Tom Schreiber and Brothers' Frocarro.

This is the game the Tigers will miss Chad Wiedmaier the most. If Rob Pannell has a kryptonite or a foil, it was the former bruising Princeton cover man.

Still, give the Tigers plenty of credit. In 2013 they had to replace stalwarts like Wiedmaier and goalie Tyler Fiorito among others, deal with a slew of injures and even convert a short-stick into their top cover guy. Yet they've managed the transition and done things by committee and a next man up philosophy. Against Harvard, sophomore goaltender Eric Sanschagrin made his first start and was solid in a dominating 14-6 win.

It goes without saying the Cornell offense is a different beast. I think they'll want to stick to Derick Raabe, who has become an absolute force between the stripes and at the defensive end, at pole fulltime to contend with Cornell's stable full of Connor Buzcek-like athletes. Nick Fernandez will likely get Pannell duties.

No. 2 Notre Dame at No. 9 Syracuse, 6:30 p.m. Saturday at East Rutherford, N.J., Big City Classic

Notre Dame's defense vs. Syracuse's offense

Freshman phenom Matt Kavanagh will draw plenty of attention, and his stiffest challenges yet, against Syracuse cover man Brian Megill.
© TD Paulius

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne's quick-slide, switch-friendly defense meets its doppelganger in Syracuse offensive coordinator Kevin Donahue's quick-touch offense.

As discussed ad nauseam, Notre Dame relies less on star power and more on its system. Ignore Byrne's Ayn Rand inspired tweets, the Irish defense is not about individual matchups or flashy checks. Instead, they switch on picks, force dodgers to inefficient places on the field and — when they have to — effectively swarm, recover and repeat. No one stars. Everyone gets the effective spoils. To no one's surprise, the Irish are ranked first in Tempo Free Lax's adjusted defensive efficiency.

Similarly, at Syracuse the focus is less on drumroll dodges or one guy generating offense and more about creating space with quick touches and relentless off-ball movement. The biggest star is JoJo Marasco, who we've learned was just miscast his entire career. He's less goal-scorer and more probing, roll back maestro. His savvy, smarts, unselfishness and ability to spot feed right to a guy's stick make him the perfect lead dog for an outfit currently ranked 10th in adjusted offensive efficacy.

So what happens when team-inspired offense meets team-inspired defense? How do I know?

I will say the most interesting thing to me during the Villanova-Notre Dame game last Saturday was a late fourth quarter off-ball goal by Villanova. The Wildcats were doing their usual bevy of on-ball picks and having guys fill the vacated space, and on one play a Notre Dame coach screamed from the sideline that the end recipient was going to be Villanova's star finisher Jack Rice. He was right and after Rice scored a goal, the Irish defenseman who had slid off of Rice was pulled off the field and the five-second ESPNU delay was cued up. To me, it was a reminder how well trained the Notre Dame defense is and how against 'Cuse they'll likely be well prepared for circle throwbacks, crease feeds and an offense that uses its brains as much as its legs.

Syracuse's Brian Megill vs. Notre Dame's Matt Kavanagh

When I saw in the box score that the Irish had scored 13 goals against Villanova, I was wondering if their offense had taken the next step. Instead, when I dug into my DVR, I saw that Notre Dame's tallies were mostly scored during unsettled situations as the Irish feasted on substitution mistakes, transition and the occasional garbage goal. Admittedly, they were cursed by the pipe a bit too.

The times when Notre Dame looked most effective on six-on-offense was when freshman attackman Matt Kavanagh put his shoulders down. The Long Island kid with the Canadian game can do it all: inside roll, finish in tight or do some dirty work. Kavanagh will face his stiffest challenge yet against Megill, a battle-tested, no-frills first-team All-American candidate. Hard-charging lefties (see McArdle, Kieran) have had success dodging against Megill before, so it will be interesting to see if Kavanagh plays more off the ball or is forced into an initiating role.

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