May 15, 2013

Lambrecht: Good Luck Handicapping Title Race

by Gary Lambrecht |

Brandon Mangan and Yale present a serious threat to the top-seeded Orange in the NCAA quarterfinal round on Saturday at Byrd Stadium in College Park, Md.
© Rich Barnes

With eight teams left in the NCAA Division I lacrosse tournament, this much is clear. There is a 50 percent chance that the champion crowned on Memorial Day in Philadelphia will be taking the victory lap for the first time in its school's history. And there is no chance the title game will resemble last year's tilt, since Loyola and Maryland are out after round one.

Four of the eight teams remaining — unseeded Yale, No. 3 seed Ohio State, No. 4 Denver and No. 2 Notre Dame — are playing in separate quarterfinal round games this weekend and have never been the last team standing in May.

One year after Loyola won its first-ever Division I title by finishing 18-1, and three days after the Greyhounds' title defense ended with a first-round, double-overtime loss at seventh-seeded Duke, Loyola's breakthrough in 2012 still resonates.

The Greyhounds, who had not won an NCAA tournament game since 2001, strung together a magical season last spring by coming seemingly out of nowhere. Loyola showed that Division I parity had truly arrived by crossing a championship line that only Syracuse, Princeton, Virginia and Johns Hopkins had crossed for two decades, before Duke broke through in 2010 for its only title.

As the tournament swings through College Park on Saturday and Indianapolis on Sunday with quarterfinal doubleheaders that will determine who comprises the final four at Lincoln Financial Field, good luck trying to handicap the race.

The eight-team field features high-octane offenses (Denver, North Carolina, Duke, Cornell), stingy defenses (Notre Dame, Yale, Ohio State, Syracuse) and teams that have a nice blend of both (Ohio State, Cornell, Syracuse). The field also is comprised of two teams each from the ACC, ECAC, Big East and Ivy League. No one has fewer than three losses.

The field includes Notre Dame senior John Kemp as its most accomplished goalie; other solid, experienced keepers such as Ohio State's Greg Dutton and Cornell's A.J. Fiore; and a pack of young talent in the cage in North Carolina freshman Kieran Burke, Duke sophomore Kyle Turri, Yale sophomore Eric Natale, and let's not forget the effective two-man platoon Denver sophomore Ryan LaPlante and junior Jamie Faus have formed.

The quarterfinals will feature a group of top 15 faceoff specialists, each of whom can turn momentum dramatically. The line starts with Duke's Brendan Fowler, then extends to North Carolina's R.G. Keenan, Cornell's Doug Tesoriero, Denver's Chase Carraro, Yale's Dylan Levings and Ohio State's Trey Wilkes.

Who will survive this week? Who knows? But here are some reasons to watch.

The Cornell-Ohio State matchup on Saturday features playmakers galore, starting with Cornell's Rob Pannell and the Buckeyes' Logan Schuss, the top scorer in school history. Both players are equally adept at feeding the potent shooters that complement them. Pannell is more athletic, while Schuss' stick work is as good as anyone's.

This looks like a shootout at first glance, but I have a feeling it will come down to ground balls, turnovers and defensive stops. It's hard to see unseeded Cornell, in search of its first NCAA title in 25 years, going down. But red-hot, balanced, hard-nosed third-seed Ohio State, which is angling for its first final four, has the right stuff. The difference could be the playoff experience of Cornell's 15-man, senior class.

Syracuse-Yale doesn't look that glamorous, yet this could be the most physical, hard-fought contest of the weekend.

The 'Cuse are such an interesting study. The Orange does not face off well and its goalie play was suspect for much of the regular season. But the defense is stout, and there is not a better six-on-six offense left in the tournament, especially with JoJo Marasco being such a good facilitator for such a star-less group of scorers. Coach John Desko may have done his best job yet in 2013.

Unseeded Yale presents a serious threat to top-seeded Syracuse. I love how physical the Bulldogs are and how dominant Levings can be at the faceoff dot. Yale clearly has emulated Cornell with its toughness, and that has really shown on defense down low with shut-down forces Peter Johnson and Michael McCormack. Brandon Mangan and Conrad Oberbeck are an excellent 1-2 punch on attack, and midfielder Colin Flaherty is on a roll. If Natale makes a few big stops, Yale could move on to only its second final four.

OK, what's the over-under on Denver-North Carolina on Sunday? I think it just ticked up to 35. I keep trying to envision scoring droughts in this one. Lots of turnovers and great saves keeping the scoreboard cool for a while. Hey, it's good to dream.

This one could be exhausting to watch, let alone play in. Then again, these guys are used to playing video games on a lacrosse field. The scoring weapons are endless, although I stand firm in the belief that Wes Berg will not score eight goals for Denver. But senior Marcus Holman might score 10 points for the Tar Heels.

No. 4 seed Denver is just two years removed from its first final four. But something tells me No. 5 Carolina — 20 years removed from its last semifinal — is on its way to Philly. Maybe it's the fact that the Heels, with 10 straight wins behind it, just keeping finding a way to get one more goal than their opponent. And Carolina has gotten clutch stops throughout its late-season roll.

The Duke-Notre Dame clash on paper appears to be the least attractive matchup, even though these two tangled for the title Duke earned in 2010, and No. 7 seed Duke has been to six consecutive final fours.

Sure, Notre Dame's offense is suspect. When is Notre Dame, in pursuit of its third final four in four seasons, not suspect on O? Duke is anything but suspect there. The Blue Devils have stacked up some amazing scoring runs, especially when Fowler goes on one of his patented, second-half tears and Duke is eating up ground balls.

Thing is, second-seeded Notre Dame has that defense that rarely cracks and it has Kemp, who is the picture of postseason cool and consistency. I like how Duke erased Loyola's four-goal lead in the second half on Sunday and out-lasted the Greyhounds by overcoming a 22-save gem by Loyola goalie Jack Runkel in a playoff classic. I like Duke's chances to solve Kemp in a close one.

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